Practice makes perfect: Doubling sugarcane production in India

Indian sugar processor DSCL, a unit of DCM Shriram Ltd., has been working with Solidaridad since 2008 to improve the sustainability of sugarcane production. To date, Solidaridad has organized training in good agricultural practices for 160,000 smallholder farmers and extension staff. Together, these producers work across 300,000 hectares of sugarcane fields.

Sugarcane transport, Lucknow, IndiaSugarcane being transported in Lucknow, India

In Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh state in northern India, the sun is barely visible through a dense haze. This is not normal fog. It is a thick layer of dust, mainly resulting from farmers burning waste in the large agricultural areas surrounding the city. Lucknow ranks as the seventh most polluted city in the world. In 2016 it also ranked in a list of the top 15 dirtiest cities in the world, where it was joined by 13 other Indian hubs. India is working hard on cleaning up its cities, but habits are hard to change and improvement take significant time and investment.

Opting for sustainable production methods

Within sugarcane production, however, Solidaridad has been able to make a difference. Not one of the 160,000 farmers participating in the sustainable sugarcane project burns their waste anymore. They have been offered attractive alternatives, such as recycling waste in a smart way to boost production. Most farmers now also practise intercropping, for example with mustard or potatoes, to prevent soil exhaustion. Water use has also been reduced.

A delegation of the farmers participating in Solidaridad and DSCL's sugarcane projectA Delegation of the farmers participating in the project

To reach this scale, Solidaridad developed a series of communication materials to reach many farmers at once. One of the methods used is a mobile cinema. A video installation in a small van drives to remote areas to show informative videos to large groups of farmers. Popular media – like folk singers and theatre plays – have been used to spread the message. Furthermore, a lot of attractive visual material has been developed as education material.

Supporting sugarcane farmers through entrepreneurship

An innovative element of the project is the training of rural entrepreneurs who are willing to invest in the machinery necessary to make production more efficient. By letting out their services to farmers for a small fee, it becomes possible for smallholders with little money to invest to implement good agricultural practices. So far 165 entrepreneurs have been trained. Solidaridad has linked them to finance institutions and government subsidy opportunities to get them started.

Ibrahim Hasibuddin in the sugarcane fieldEntrepreneur Ibrahim Hasibuddin in the sugarcane field

Ibrahim Hasibuddin is one such entrepreneur. He has invested 250,000 (INR) into equipment to manage the water levels in sugarcane fields. Farmers pay 900 rupees for his services and he is able to use 40% of that amount to downpay the equipment. Dr. J. Singh, Director of the Council of Sugarcane Research, one of Solidaridad’s partners in the project, explains:

We like to say ‘when your head is in the oven and your feet are wet, you should grow sugarcane’. Sugarcane needs a lot of water, but you need to balance it very carefully. Too much water and the plant will go to waste. Too little water and the plant will dry. The only way that you can prevent this is by very carefully levelling the field that you grow your cane on. By hand this is almost impossible, but small farmers cannot afford the machines. So this is where the entrepreneurs are really making the difference.

Ibrahim does not regret his investment. “If everything goes to plan, I will have two more years to pay back my loan, but after that it’s all profit,” he says. As a healthy market system all depends on a good balance of supply and demand, Solidaridad also works on the demand side. In collaboration with IFC, farmers are educated about the equipment and how it can improve their production and income. For farmers, there is no better incentive than seeing neighbouring farmers’ increased yields.

Roshan Lal Tamak, executive director of DSCL  Roshan Lal Tamak, executive director of DSCL, a unit of DCM Shriram Ltd.

“It starts with awareness. Then comes appreciation. But internalization can only be reached through practice. And that is what we see happening now,” says Roshan Lal Tamak – executive director of DSCL, a unit of DCM Shriram Ltd. The company processes 600,000 tons of sugarcane a year, mostly from smallholder farmers, each owning around one hectare of sugarcane. He is pleased with the results so far: “Production volumes have doubled as a result of the training in good practices. And average income has doubled to around 120,000 per year.”

Learn more about Solidaridad’s sugarcane programmes