Women Empowerment in West Bengal – WE4F External Surveyor Shares Her Experiences

In 2019, I joined the Securing Water for Food Grand Challenge in 2019 (SWFF) as a field evaluator and conducted two evaluations in India. When I heard of this opportunity to work with the Water and Energy for Food Grand Challenge (WE4F), I immediately applied, given that I thoroughly enjoyed working earlier as a SWFF evaluator.      

As part of Cohort 1 for WE4F, I met a cadre of primarily young but experienced researchers’ that were hand-picked from around the world to assess WE4Fs’ supported innovations. I was assigned to ONergy Solar which is based in East and Northeast India but plans to expand its operations across the country. Their innovation is an integrated solar irrigation system for smallholder farmers and vulnerable populations, including women. ONergy delivers affordable and clean energy sources by installing solar panel systems on agricultural lands of rural customers.

Innovation installed in Baradhman village

Being in the field for the data collection in West Bengal has been one of the most enriching experiences for me. Each day, I travelled over 150 kilometres to visit a cluster of 4-5 villages, seeing on-the-ground realities coupled with related bottlenecks, first-hand. But, to me, it was all worth it as I witnessed a successful project which will pave the way for energy transformation in the Indian agriculture sector.

The greatest joy for me was seeing women being empowered in greater numbers by being involved in the innovation, yields increased, more healthy plants flourished, and farmers seeing greater returns and bargaining power for crops in the market.

What’s more, the cultural hurdle of women farmers not getting a decisive power or say in farming matters was being overcome as innovators introduced more intentional efforts, training, and development modules explicitly catering to them. Further, farmers who have used the innovation informed other farmers of its benefits. From my evaluation of ONergy Solar, I see a lot of potential in a solar panel innovation.      

It is extremely important to note that this innovation has created women entrepreneurs. Before this, across the West Bengal District, women were rarely seen as farmers, even though they typically spent as much time as men working on the farm. Although men are usually the legal farmland owners, women share an equal amount of the burden in farming practices. When farmers use ONergy’s innovation,  men were likely to share technical information on themes, such as the quantity and prices of inputs for farming, transportation, and storage.

Electrical connection for the innovation in village Nadia

The women farmers were observed to be highly enthusiastic about the innovation, especially those involved and provided training by the innovators. They felt empowered by sustaining themselves. Another key activity that helps improve women’s engagement and address local barriers to gender integration in farming, is ONergy Solar’s first-loss default guarantee (FLDG) for women farmers. The FLDG-blended finance helps leverage commercial capital, providing farmers with up to 5-year loans on solar pumps, improving the affordability and accessibility of their innovation.

There were several crucial takeaways, other than the empowerment of women:

  • The solar panel system can potentially address increasing electricity and diesel pumping costs. With the skyrocketing diesel price in India in recent years, the solar panel system is the only sustainable alternative for irrigation. The other option, rainfall, has been erratic over the last years due to climate change conditions.
  • Overall, the innovation positively impacts energy savings, greenhouse gas emission reduction, and farmers’ incomes by replacing electricity and diesel pumping in irrigation.

For those interested in working as a WE4F External Surveyor, I strongly recommend applying. It gives you first-hand experience with an innovator, in-depth learning about how the innovation affects the energy-water-food nexus and, most importantly, offers close communication with farmers – the backbone of any country.

Pooja Gupta is a monitoring and evaluation expert and has been working on various projects and policies pertaining to facilitating the implementation of a wide range of development programs, including promoting various rural agribusiness enterprises, inclusive businesses, and Policy Advocacy with a particular focus on agency among women. Before this, she had worked with the Securing Water for Food (SWFF) programme founded by USAID, Sweden, through the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA) and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Government of the Netherlands.