With India likely to be among the nations most significantly affected by climate change, fertiliser co-op Iffco is intensifying efforts to develop efficient products that are not harmful to the environment.
In the coming decades the country could face severe challenges, from rising sea levels and deadly heatwaves to worsening inequality. As the world’s biggest co-operative by GDP, Iffco says it aims to play a key role in addressing some of these challenges while hoping that others in the industry might follow.
In March the co-operative, which has over 30,000 co-op societies and more than 40m farmer members, announced it had patented nano fertilisers to minimise the ill effects of the use of chemical fertilisers on crops and the soil.
Iffco is also working on developing organic fertilisers that can improve the soil texture and not have a negative impact on the environment.
“We are trying to showcase what can be done so that other businesses can follow our lead,” says G K Gautan, director of Cooperative Development and Technology.
“Iffco has a good brand image and it is a social movement, its main function is to change the lives of farmers while not affecting the environment. We are taking the SDGs into our planning and actions very seriously.”
Iffco’s managing director, Dr Uday Shanker Awasthi, is a chemical engineer who joined the business in 1975 as a management level officer.
In 1986 he left to manage a fertiliser company owned by a state fund. He re-joined the co-op in 1993 as managing director.
“We have been continuously working to provide sustainable plant based fertilisers. First bio fertilisers, now nano fertilisers,” he added.
In addition, farmers get access to training on modern agriculture and soil check-up programmes.
In September, Iffco started a nationwide tree plantation campaign that led to 700,000 Neem trees being planted across the country. The trees, which require little water to grow, will help to keep the oxygen level in the atmosphere balanced and reduce soil erosion.
The co-op is also in the process of developing fertilisers with nutrients that will be better absorbed by plants and controlled release fertilisers, to release nutrients gradually into the soil.
To support farmers, Iffco will also start a food processing business to enable its members to get better prices for their produce.
The financial viability of farmers is key to achieving the SDGs, thinks Dr Awasthi. When they buy fertilisers from Iffco farmers can also get insured.
Sadhana Jadhav is the first woman to be elected on the board of the co-op. She became a director this year after obtaining a large majority in the election for the seat specifically allocated to women co-operators.
“It is important to work with farmers as primary actors and the backbone of society to achieve sustainable development”, she says. She decided to stand for election after witnessing the positive impact joining Iffco has had on her primary society.
“Working for a large co-operative society like Iffco empowers women,” she added, praising the co-op for allocating a board seat to women.
Dr Awasti acknowledges that getting more women involved remains a challenge for Iffco due to the sector being male-dominated.
“We are trying to get more gender equality into our co-ops,” he says.
Iffco runs bazars where agro shopping centres are managed by women, who get better remuneration and facilities. Any women co-ops that apply can join Iffco and get support in the form of credit or delayed credit for their produce, adds Dr Awasti.
The co-op says it is trying to attract young people as well. Board member Aditya Yadav is also representing India on the ICA global board. Currently on his second term, he says his main ambition is to drive co-operation among co-operatives.
He comes from a family of co-operators and says his motivation to join Iffco was witnessing the positive impact co-operatives have in his country. He believes including co-ops in schools’ curricula is crucial to getting more young people interested in the co-operative model. Iffco also runs student exchange programme through which students from other countries get to visit India and learn about co-ops.
Looking ahead towards the future, Dr Awasti says Iffco will be aiming to export their organic fertilisers to other countries and drive change across the industry.
Iffco has recently signed a memorandum of understanding with ICA Africa to enhance coop-to-coop partnerships. The agreement was signed during the ICA’s Global Conference in Kigali, Rwanda.
Under the MoU, Iffco and the ICA’s Africa regional office will work to promote new agri-input products such as nano and bio fertilisers via field trials.
The two organisations will also work to empower African farmers by organising training, integration and development programmes.