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Shared labour, shared rewards: men and women farming together in Sri Lanka

“I am confident that this groundnut cultivation will help educate my children and earn a substantial income for my family” says Nelka Kumari Ariyasena.

© FAO / Mahina Bongso

Nelka is one of a group of 15 farmers — 11 women and 4 men — in the district of Puttalam, in the Northwestern Province of Sri Lanka. Through an FAO project activity focusing on the cultivation of Other Field Crops (OFC), the group has learned new and improved agricultural practices for groundnut cultivation, as well as a better way of working — together.

The promotion of OFC cultivation, which is part of the “European Union – Support to District Development Programme” (EU-SDDP), aims to increase income generation and improve livelihoods among Sri Lankan farmers, and focuses on gender involvement, shared roles, and sustainability.

Farmers like Nelka and her fellow group members are already seeing results. “Through the income I earned this time from selling the groundnut seeds I was able to buy a bicycle,” says Nelka. Indeed, after just three months of cultivation and 133 000 Sri Lanka rupees in expenditures, the group made a net profit of 920 000 Sri Lanka rupees.

Deepa Priyadarshani, another member of the group, credits their success to the extensive training and continued support from the project. “We were given guidance and the agriculture officers and FAO officers constantly inspected our cultivations,” she explains. Inputs such as seeds were also crucial — “the Department of Agriculture through the intervention of FAO provided us with good quality seeds, which we cultivated in November last year.”

The "European Union – Support to District Development Programme" (EU-SDDP) aims to reduce poverty and improve sustainable livelihoods among Sri Lanka’s most vulnerable populations, particularly women, people with special needs, and conflict-affected communities.

Launched in 2012, the project is funded by the European Union and implemented by FAO in collaboration with the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Animal Production & Health, the Department of Fisheries, the National Aquaculture Development Authority of Sri Lanka, and the Department of Irrigation.

In addition to ensuring quality seeds, guidance, and frequent field inspections, FAO also registered the group with the Seed Certification Service Center of the Department of Agriculture. Membership with the Center allows them to have a better price for their groundnut seeds, as well as a reliable partner for quality processing and production of their crops at a commercial level.

A group effort

Another key feature of the group’s efficiency and success lies in the benefits of collective participation. From the beginning, the women showed a strong preference for working in a group rather than individually, and this has had a positive impact on many aspects of the initiative, including training, extension services, knowledge sharing and capacity building.

Perhaps most importantly, this collective, shared approach to labour has lightened the load for each individual farmer, and contributed to the group’s overall efficiency and sustainability. As Nelka puts it, “I don’t need to look far for help because the other farmers in the groundnut field assist me, especially during harvesting.”

In developing their labour-sharing approach, the farmers also identified roles that were best suited to each member, and this has led to a fairer and more equal distribution of responsibility among the men and women in the group. As a result, the women have more time for household chores and for engaging in commercial-scale production, while the men have time to attend to their paddy cultivations. And overall, there is a sense of reciprocity and teamwork.

“My husband supports me by encouraging me to work in the groundnut cultivation and also by helping me in the farming activities,” says Chandrika Kumari Ranasinghe, another member of the group.

Speaking up for the men, 65-year-old H.M. Ariyaratne agrees: “We can depend on each other,” he says. “If I fall ill and I am unable to work in the field, somebody from the group will tend to my plot of groundnut production.”

“There is unity within the group and that is our main strength.”