Prakash roped in 30 Soliga farmers and 1,000 other marginal farmers and formed a collective to set up a millet processing unit in Karnataka's Chamarajnagar district
We do not know what to do with so much money,” says PO Naga of the Soliga tribe in Chamarajnagar district of Karnataka. The 45-year-old farmer from Tulsi Kera village has, for the first time, earned Rs 18,000 in the rabi season.
“This is more than three times the money I usually get,” says Naga, while thanking Honnur Prakash, district president of farmers' organisation Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha, who pooled in the community’s resources to set up a millet processing unit that is now paying the community a fair price.
Nestled in the Malai Mahadeshwar hills of Karnataka, Soligas are one of India’s most remote farming communities that has remained cut off from the urban world. Local traders used to pay them a pittance for their organic and healthy produce.
The farmers grow five types of millets and rainfed paddy in small holdings. The nearest market is 60 km away in Kollegal town.
“Travelling to the market is not cost-effective as the land size is small. The local merchants pay us much less than the market rate,” he says, adding that his 0.4 hectares land produces 0.6 tonnes that fetches him Rs 5,000 a season.
Prakash says poor farm produce was forcing the young from the tribe to migrate to towns to work as daily labourers. “I thought the only way to arrest the migration is by making farming profitable,” he says.
In February 2018, Prakash roped in 30 Soliga farmers and 1,000 other marginal farmers operating in the foothills and formed a collective to set up the millet processing unit there. While the 30 Soliga families could together contribute Rs 5,000, Prakash raised Rs 3 lakh with the help of the other farmers in the collective.
The unit, which procures millet from the farmers, processes, packages and sells them under the brand, Natural Millet of MM Hills, in Mysuru and Bengaluru. “The product has been an instant hit as it is marketed as super organic food, which is produced in the pristine hills. We are selling it to major processing units who manufacture millet-based malts and biscuits,” he says.
The unit buys the grains for Rs 30,000 a tonne, which is five times the price farmers get at the local market and much more from local traders. Seeing the success, several other Soliga families want to join the collective.
“We are now in the process of turning this collective into cooperative and set up a bigger unit,” says Prakash. The next step, he says, is to start a manufacturing unit to increase profits.
(This article was first published in Down To Earth's print edition dated September 16-30, 2019)
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