Sodexo – Empowering Women Through Food Sovereignty

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Ashwin Bhosale

According to a recent UN report, 60 per cent of women in India do not have any valuable assets. Considering agriculture in particular, women own barely 2 per cent of cultivable land even though 75 per cent of the rural women are farmers producing approximately 60 – 80 per cent of the food and 90 per cent of dairy products in India. Thus, a whopping 50 per cent of the total Indian population has a long way to go. But history suggests that women did not always suffer from disparities. Women enjoyed many privileges and were accorded the same status as men in the Early Vedic period. They were educated, could select their partners, pursue agricultural interests and offer their opinion on financial matters. In short, they were treated as equals. However, there was a gradual decline in the status of women over time. Patriarchy gained importance, and women occupied a secondary position in society. After India gained independence, our leaders strove to set things right again. They introduced reforms. Under the Constitution, women received equal rights as men. In recent times, there has been a massive drive to educate women, ensure that all of them have a bank account, and most importantly, make them financially independent. Emphasis was given to economic empowerment, predominantly through women entrepreneurship. 

Steps Taken by the Government 

NITI Aayog has launched a Women Entrepreneurship Programme (WEP) to provide free credit ratings, mentorship, funding support for women entrepreneurs, apprenticeships, and corporate partnerships. The Department of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare (DA &FW), Ministry of Agriculture & Farmers Welfare, is encouraging States and other implementing agencies to ensure at least 30 per cent expenditure on women farmers, along with imparting training to them to understand the latest techniques in agriculture and allied sectors.

Additionally, women farmers are provided inputs to increase the productivity of crops. They are educated about the nutritious value of crops and how to cultivate them for household consumption and for selling. These initiatives are fostering food security in the entire community. 

How Corporates are Stepping In 

Along with the government, corporates are also doing their bit uplift women. Some companies like ours – Sodexo – have Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) at the core of their values. As a part of our Corporate Social Responsibility initiatives, we are constantly striving to encourage gender equality in our workforce and promote women entrepreneurship. We have formulated a ‘Better Tomorrow 2025’ plan under which we are taking up several community development initiatives to promote sustainable livelihoods for women, thus improving their quality of life.

In another ongoing project, we teamed up with Sulabh International Centre for Action Sociology to implement food sovereignty for women. Within three months of its initiation, the project has already helped a team of 300+ women entrepreneurs better their economic condition by an impressive degree.

Initiatives Taken by Sodexo

One of our success stories includes Subhada Mestry, a woman entrepreneur who now supplies Indian bread (chappatis) at multiple Sodexo sites. We helped Subhada to set up her own chapati business in Mumbai. Within a short period, the business enterprise turned out to be a sustained, profit-making venture for Subhada while offering employment to other like-minded and strong-willed women.

Another important initiative we undertook was to help women in a few villages of Maharashtra set up their kitchen gardens and establish bee farming, in association with NGO – Under the Mango Tree. Within a few months, these women grew vegetables for their family consumption and could also sell the surplus and earn money. They could all become financially independent.

Launching the Food Sovereignty Project

In another ongoing project, we teamed up with Sulabh International Centre for Action Sociology to implement food sovereignty for women. Within three months of its initiation, the project has already helped a team of 300+ women entrepreneurs better their economic condition by an impressive degree.

The project began by Sulabh International Centre for Action Sociology identifying 16 villages in Sangamner and Akole Blocks in the Ahmednagar district of Maharashtra. The objective was to create a seed bank managed by women volunteers who took the role of storekeepers for high-quality indigenous seeds. Farmers could purchase these organic seeds for a nominal price; these seeds would give rise to a healthy crop, which is chemical-free, and it would also help conserve agrobiodiversity. Additionally, the project would establish a food chain from farm to end customer and lead to economic and social empowerment of women.

“Seeds from traditional agricultural varieties help to solve food shortages and malnutrition. These varieties also intensify the food system resilience to climate and cultural challenges. Seed banks promote resiliently and diversified food production of sorghum, millets and many more indigenous varieties that protects the biodiversity of the area. In our initiative, women farmers are encouraged to use the conservation of the native seeds as the basis of their development. This initiative also aims to preserve and promote indigenous seeds to achieve food sufficiency that eventually eradicates hunger and restores the dignity of farmers. I am sure this joint partnership between Sulabh International with Sodexo India will contribute immensely towards food security and will emerge as a successful model of food sovereignty,” said Nirja Bhatnagar, National Director – Programme and Advocacy, Sulabh International Social Service Organisation.

Overcoming Several Challenges 

Several constraints challenged the success of this project. At the outset, the problem of patriarchy had to be resolved. Traditionally, the men of the house had always handled the farming while the women looked after the house. Further, these men were led to believe that hybrid seeds and chemical fertilisers would help increase yield; quantity took precedence over quality. They also followed inappropriate farming practices. For example, they practised mono-cropping as it was easy, overlooking the fact that this practice would eventually rid the soil of fertility.

A Smoother Journey

Once the villages were identified for the project, community seed workers or animators, known as Beej Sakhis, having interest and experience in working with women farmers, were employed. They held meetings in the village to build rapport with the women, discussed with Gram Panchayat members to gain the support of key persons, visited nearby kitchen gardens to gather more knowledge, and created a focus group of already engaged women farmers who had been conserving and cultivating indigenous crop varieties. These activities helped the project staff and the local women gear up for project implementation. 

There were many interesting and welcome changes once the project was implemented. The women became aware of gender discrimination in farming and endeavoured to break the shackles. They took an active interest in the cultivation of crops and promoted an indigenous variety of seeds. The adoption of organic farming practices led to reduced production costs of farming goods compared to farming with chemical inputs. Women were encouraged to start their kitchen gardens. This helped them produce vegetables for their daily meals. The surplus was sold in the local market, and the extra earnings supplemented the family income.

Securing a Healthy and Prosperous Future Through Seed Banks
Lata Sawant
Pimpalgaon Matha Village

I am a Beej Sakhi in my village, Pimpalgaon Matha. We have a land holding of around 5 acres where we cultivate vegetables, fruits and grains. 

Sulabh International and Sodexo have started a seed bank in our village. Through this project, we have formed a self-help group in our village. We have 25 members as of now. Due to the seed bank, I can barter seeds with other women farmers in the village. I give them the seeds they need and vice versa. This process has allowed me to start a kitchen garden in my home garden. I grow various fruits and vegetables. This has improved my family’s nutritional intake, especially my two schoolgoing children. Apart from my family’s improved health, the kitchen garden has allowed me to save money, as earlier, we were spending Rs 1000 per month on vegetables.

Initially, there was resistance from my family about my involvement in the seed bank project, but I convinced them by telling them about the benefits of having a seed bank. On seeing the results of the seed bank, they finally agreed that my decision was correct. They are also happy to see my personal growth and the leadership skills I have developed through this project. I am now much more confident while speaking with others about the project.

I thank Sodexo and Sulabh International for giving me this opportunity. 


Interesting Facts Noticed After Implementation

There were many interesting and welcome changes once the project was implemented. The women became aware of gender discrimination in farming and endeavoured to break the shackles. They took an active interest in the cultivation of crops and promoted an indigenous variety of seeds. The adoption of organic farming practices led to reduced production costs of farming goods compared to farming with chemical inputs. Women were encouraged to start their kitchen gardens. This helped them produce vegetables for their daily meals. The surplus was sold in the local market, and the extra earnings supplemented the family income. 

Gradually, the advantages of organic seeds became apparent, and women farmers started exchanging seeds among themselves instead of purchasing from the market at a higher price. This also fostered team spirit among the women. It led to increased collaboration, and the women started discussing the best methods for seed conservation and increased farm produce.

As climate change continues to exacerbate women’s vulnerability and increase the gender gap, the feminist movement must look towards environmental efforts to save the planet and humanity. The promise of equality gets further and further away with each rainfall, drought, or storm that comes due to climate change.

Seed Banks – A Blessing to the Communities

Savita Pande
Sarpanch (Village Head), Pimpalgaon Matha Village. 

I am the Sarpanch (Village Head) of the Pimpalgaon Matha village. Sulabh International and Sodexo have been implementing the seed bank project in eight villages in the Sangamner block; my village is one of the eight. I am extremely happy with the results of the project in the first six months. The women trade seeds amongst themselves through which they have started kitchen gardens in their respective plots. It has allowed these families to consume nutritious food while also helping them save an average of Rs 500-600 each, every month.

This project has also saved many endangered seeds from extinction and brought awareness about the importance of organic farming practices in my village as many farmers have decided to quit using chemicals in their fields.

One of the most important aspects of the project is empowering women through the formation of self-help groups. The Beej Sakhis have also developed leadership skills and now have the potential to lead the villages in the sustainable agriculture revolution.

I am very grateful that my village was chosen to be a part of this wonderful project. I hope we can develop this project even further in the coming months and years. 

Woman farmer Savita Dattaray Lende also shares her experience. “I reside at Khandarmalwadi village in the Sangamner Block of Ahmednagar district. We live in a nuclear family setup. I can proudly say that I have developed holistically from this project. I learnt teamwork by working with other women in the self-help group. My self-confidence has also increased greatly. It also gives me immense pride to mention that our work through this project has given us much respect among the village community, which was missing before. My husband proudly tells everyone who sees our kitchen garden that this is only due to his wife’s hard work. We (the self-help group) are also consulted by other male farmers in the village on the types of crops that are required to grow on their farm.”


Project Details

Climate change is causing serious repercussions on agriculture and food security. It primarily affects populations from developing countries, particularly women, who depend more on agriculture for sustenance/livelihoods. 

As climate change continues to exacerbate women’s vulnerability and increase the gender gap, the feminist movement must look towards environmental efforts to save the planet and humanity. The promise of equality gets further and further away with each rainfall, drought, or storm that comes due to climate change. 

Gender and environmental knowledge and practices interact. Gender and environmental relations are experienced and are an important part of knowledge production around gendered ecological processes.

Benefits of a Seed Bank

– Conserves indigenous and interspecies variation suited to the ecological niche.

– Integrates on-farm conservation by engaging with women farmers of the farming community.

– A collection, selection and production of indigenous crop diversity.

– Ensures quality seed and planting material production.

– Minimises the dependency on the public and private seed supply system and strengthens the farmer-to-farmer exchange system.

To take this further, we need support to provide infrastructure for storage facilities and develop a resource and training centre for the community.

Expected Impact: The ultimate aim is to sustain and maintain the seed banks while encouraging women farmers to grow indigenous and local crop varieties, which are the staple food of the area and resilient to climate change. We also want to help women achieve food security and empower themselves with food sovereignty.

Current Positive Impact: With our STOP Hunger funds this year, Sulabh has appointed 13 such Beej Sakhis that have trained and empowered 3293 women farmers in 16 nearby villages in two blocks (eight villages per block) in the interiors of Maharashtra. By adopting these agricultural best practices, the women have witnessed up to a 15 per cent increase in the yield. The project has led to households’ average incomes inching to around Rs 24-25K per annum.

The project was an extremely enriching experience for us. It brought immense satisfaction to us as we always strived to eradicate hunger and malnutrition, overcome gender disparity and promote local entrepreneurship for community development. It was also a huge learning experience as discussions with the local women and farmers helped us gain a new perspective. Further, the project helped create a storehouse of organic produce that the onsite kitchens nearby could depend on. 

Benefits of Indigenous Seeds and Organic Farming 

Dattaray Vitthal Lende
Khandarmalwadi Village, Sangamner Block, Ahmednagar District.

I am a farmer in the Khandarmalwadi village of the Sangamner Block. I live with my wife Lata and our three children. We have agricultural land of about 1 acre and 68 gunthas, where one half is reserved for rain-fed crops while the other half is kept for irrigated agriculture. We also run a small dairy business to supplement our limited farming income. My wife helps me in my work, and together, we look after the farming and the dairy business. She also sells vegetables on the side to help bring in that much-needed income.

A few months ago, Sulabh International and Sodexo organised a women farmers’ meeting for the first time in our village. My wife attended the same and came back to inform me about the agenda of the meeting. She told me about indigenous seeds and organic farming and their benefits on our health, our environment and also on our finances. She also told me that she is very keen on attending more such meetings in the future. While I appreciated her enthusiasm, I was apprehensive and told her that from my own farming experience, using chemical fertilisers and hybrid crops are the only way to make agriculture a profitable business in today’s time. She still insisted on attending these meetings and also wished to make practical use of the learnings. I respected her wishes and asked her to continue attending such meetings and see if we can make something out of it.

After a while, she joined a self-help group formed by Sulabh to start an indigenous seed bank in our village and a kitchen garden at home. They also conducted sessions by inviting expert speakers from different fields to discuss various topics relating to organic farming and the conservation of indigenous seeds with the women of the self-help group. Seeing such commitment made me rethink my views on organic farming and using indigenous seeds instead of hybrid ones available in the market. 

I told my wife that I am also now interested in giving organic farming a try. We also successfully made the kitchen garden at our home. I was blown away with the results as it was very beneficial for our family’s health and immunity, especially during the testing times of COVID-19 as it gave us the necessary vitamins needed to strengthen our immunity. It was also very cost-efficient as we were saving a big chunk of money that was previously used for purchasing fruits, vegetables, grains and lentils from the market that are now available in our house itself. We also saved money on seeds as getting indigenous seeds from the bank is way cheaper than buying expensive hybrid seeds from the market. All this saved money can now be used in educating our three children, especially our two daughters, as we believe that educating our girls is the first step towards making them independent as they grow older.

I now fully understand the benefits of indigenous seeds and organic farming. I will make my farm completely chemical-free. I thank my wife for bringing me to this stage with her constant efforts. I am also happy that she has grown as a person through this project. Her self-confidence has shot up. She now not only speaks confidently in front of big crowds but also takes many new initiatives for her self-help group. She has made the saying, ‘Nothing is Impossible’ true in our lives. I will continue to support her in her hard work. This is not only the case with my wife but also with the other members of the self-help group. All the women have grown tremendously through this project. This will help in developing our village as empowered and self-dependent women are a very critical part of any developed society or community.

I would also like to wholeheartedly thank Sulabh International and Sodexo for this project as it has not only helped the women but our entire village. I would like to request them to continue to support the development of our village through such projects.


A Sublime Experience for Sodexo

The project was an extremely enriching experience for us. It brought immense satisfaction to us as we always strived to eradicate hunger and malnutrition, overcome gender disparity and promote local entrepreneurship for community development. It was also a huge learning experience as discussions with the local women and farmers helped us gain a new perspective. Further, the project helped create a storehouse of organic produce that the onsite kitchens nearby could depend on. 

We are now striving to replicate and upscale this model in the next phase of the project in different areas of Maharashtra and across the country. By encouraging sustainable livelihoods every day, we intend to carry on its legacy of creating a better tomorrow for the communities we operate.

Ashwin Bhosale is the Director of HSE & CSR, Sodexo Onsite Services, India.