By Rusen Kumar
Solvay is a Belgium-based chemicals and materials company with a strong presence in Europe, the Americas and Asia. In India, Solvay has been present for 50 years now and its main growth drivers today are in high performance materials for smart devices, healthcare, or cars, as well as in formulations for home and personal care or agriculture.
Addressing demand growth for its high-performance or metal-replacement materials, Solvay recently announced production expansion at its site in Panoli, Gujarat, for sulfone polymers which are used for membranes for water purification or in hemodialysis.
Solvay’s commitment to India goes beyond production sites and research and innovation. The Group launched in 2015 a project to help improve the lives and wellbeing of guar bean farmers in Bikaner, Rajasthan. Guar is used as a natural polymer in various daily applications, such as shampoo. Given the widespread use of Guar Solvay decided to tap into the potential of the forgotten bean, to bring its real economic benefit to the farmers and their families. The project also aims to empower the women in the farmer families, with a focus on health, hygiene and nutrition and developing second source of income for the family.
This interview hones in on the details of the company’s flagship initiative, its impact thus far, and what it plans to achieve in the future.
What are Solvay India’s CSR activities focused on?
Solvay firmly believes in devising Corporate Social Responsibility activities that will contribute to the enhancement of local areas around the company’s operational zones and benefit local communities. At present we are actively participating in sprucing up the agricultural domain primarily in the North-Western region of India, along with women empowerment, and nutrition in farming households.
What are Good Agricultural Practices (GAP)?
Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) are the ones that address environmental, economic, and social sustainability for on-farm processes, and result in safe and quality food and non-food agricultural products according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). GAP are at the heart of our flagship – Guar Sustainable Initiative, in Bikaner, Rajasthan, with a focus on increasing revenue and livelihood of guar farmers here.
What does the Guar Sustainable Initiative entail for local farmers in Bikaner? Any challenges you may have faced?
A total of 3000 volunteer farming households in Bikaner – where guar is one of only two grown crops – are covered under the Sustainable Guar Initiative launched in 2015. The aim is to increase revenues of these guar farmers by 25%, over three years. We are empowering them with tools and knowledge to cultivate the crop through GAP, resulting in more continuous, high yield production. The program aims to improve livelihood and ensure a durability of income for guar bean farmers, also protect local resources, while considering the impact of climate change.
In terms of challenges, it took some effort to motivate farmers to invest in good practices related to guar, a crop that traditionally doesn’t generate much income. Making them understand its value down the supply chain was a key element. Furthermore, we launched a pilot to build a long term traceable supply chain which brings value to all the stakeholders – from the farmers up to the end users. The end game of this project is a sustainable sourcing, a traceable supply chain, which brings strong benefit to the communities and the society.
Why did Solvay decide to intervene into enhancing Guar production?
Around 80% of the world’s guar is produced in India, mostly in the semi-desert regions of Rajasthan. You might not know it, but you’ve probably consumed guar before, while washing your hair or enjoying a snack. From cosmetics to food and beverages, oil and gas and pharmaceuticals, this widespread thickener derived from the seed of this drought-resistant legume is just about everywhere. However, the guar market suffers from uncertain prices and poor remuneration for farmers, as it was never considered a priority by the authorities or the farmers themselves. This project is a first of its kind step aimed to show the true value of the precious bean.
Tell us about your partners for this initiative?
The Sustainable Guar Initiative was launched with TechnoServe, an international non-profit organization promoting business solutions to fight poverty, to improve guar farmers’ standard of living. With the help of Technoserve’s agronomist, we could define the Best Practices to cultivate guar together with guar experts, universities, and Agronomy institutes like CARZI.
As the world leader in guar derivatives, it made perfect sense for Solvay to get involved, in partnership with one of its main customers for guar products as well as Hindustan Gum, the Indian joint venture Solvay established in 1962 to source guar seeds and produce guar splits and guar gum powder. The beauty of this program is to have in the same place all potential stakeholders using guar from many industries.
What is the impact until now? Please share further plans under the initiative?
At the end of its second year, the initiative recorded a 20 to 40% rise in yield. For year three, we aim that 70-80% of farmers adopt the good practices we taught them, including seed selection, seed treatment, in-line sowing or integrated pest management (IPM). To support the program over the long term, demo farms and village committees have been created to continue spreading awareness and knowledge. We also plan to capacitate farmers sufficiently so that they pursue the processes we have instituted – hopefully rendering the program self-sustained.
What are the key initiatives designed for women empowerment?
Women empowerment has been defined as a key priority since the beginning of the guar project because they hold such a special role in farmer families both at the household health and nutrition level and for guar cultivation. So, the project staff of Solvay helps women in these household to set up kitchen gardens, to educate them on nutritional benefits of growing and consuming vegetables, and the same time these serve as a potential secondary income source for a farming household.
How do kitchen gardens benefit farming households?
Kitchen gardening is an initiative focused on training women farmers to grow vegetables that will add nutrition to their diet. The three-pronged objective of the training includes: increase knowledge of the women farmers on nutrition, enable them to improve household nutrition, and set up kitchen gardens for in-house nutrition management. The participating women farmers are provided awareness on the benefits of various kinds of vegetables.
Reference material is provided to consult on a favorable timings and weather to sow the vegetables. While some women already have rudimentary kitchen gardens, they do not know how to maintain them, which is taught in detail in the training. Several women spoke of never having cooked spinach and fenugreek before due to its unavailability in the local market, and had to be taught the method of cooking by the project team.
Thus far, the participants have unanimously agreed that their consumption of green vegetables has gone up because of kitchen gardens. This positive impact on household nutrition, is set to amplify with kitchen gardening becoming an integral part of these households, who will then encourage other families to adopt the same.
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