From tribal health to tribal wealth: Sittilingi Organic Farmers Association (SOFA)

July 12, 2018
By Rang De Team

The village of Sittilingi lies in a lush green valley bound by the Sitteri and Kalrayan Hills of the Eastern Ghats in Tamil Nadu. Home to the Malaivasi (hill-dwelling) community, the region remained off the beaten path for a long time till doctors Regi George and Lalitha arrived at the village.

At the time, local superstitions held sway and the sick had no other recourse than fake medicines and faith healing. Infant-maternal mortality was dangerously high but since the nearest hospital was more than 10 kms away, there was little that families could do in an emergency. Moved with compassion by the plight of the people, the couple established the Tribal Health Initiative (THI) in 1993 and started a small clinic inside a modest hut built with the help of the villagers.

Today in place of the hut is an impressive cluster of brick buildings fully equipped with 40 beds, a surgery room, an ambulance and more than 20 trained health workers.

They also run weekly and monthly outreach clinics in remote villages, offer affordable old age insurance and conduct a school health program.

But THI has not stopped with healthcare. They organise ‘Padyatras’ (journey by foot) to keep a finger on the pulse of the community and through those interactions, learnt that the people were struggling to sustain their livelihoods.

Most were engaged in rain-fed farming but lacked marketability and transportation for their produce, without which they remained at the mercy of middlemen.

Setting out to the market required a good deal of preparation. A farmer had to carry produce in a sack or basket, balanced on his head, and walk several kilometers to the nearest bus stand. From there, he would travel for three hours to Salem and then catch an auto to reach the market where he would try to find a buyer willing to pay a reasonable price.

At the market, the traders know the farmer has to sell the produce and cannot afford to make another trip to town. While the middlemen earned 10%-15% as commission, the farmer received just enough to pay for the journey back home.

In the absence of adequate transport and processing facilities, the tribal farmers in Sittlingi were were taken advantage of by middlemen and traders in the region. This has slowly changed over the years

The injustice of this was painfully clear to THI. They wanted to ensure that farmers received a fair price for their harvest. They also saw the need to optimise crop production through organic practices, in the interests of preserving the soil and surrounding environment.

After deliberating with members of the community, it was decided that bringing all the farmers under one umbrella would give them better prospects and the Sittilingi Organic Farmer’s Assocation (SOFA) was born.

“An individual farmer would find it very difficult to bear the cost of applying for an organic certificate,” said Mr. Manjunath, CEO of the producer company, during his visit to Rang De’s office in Bangalore. “He would also lack the bargaining power that comes with being a part of a collective. That is why we have established SOFA. We wanted to bring the farmers together, share best practices and develop and market products from the crops they cultivate.”

Their products are sold under the brand name ‘Svad’, the acronym for Sittilingi Valley Agricultural Development, which also neatly doubles up with the Hindi word taste.

Over the years, women have taken an active part in the activities of SOFA

With a growing reputation for quality produce, SOFA absorbed women from the community to make value added products so that they too, could engage in income-generating activities within the cooperative. At present, around 500 women make a variety of products ranging from millet cookies and pappads to natural soaps and turmeric powder.

“Farming has become profitable now,” says Mr. Munnuswamy, who hails from Sittilingi and has been working at SOFA for five years. He explains that ever since the producer company was formed, villagers who had migrated to Madurai and Tirupur were returning to their farms.

Over the years, THI has also instilled a sense of ownership among the people, so that they are able to help themselves even when local authorities fail to do so.

For instance, the village water tank had not been cleaned for two years and everyone waited for the collector, who sat about 100 kms away, to visit and take necessary action. Familiar with bureaucratic apathy, the organisation encouraged the people and mobilised members of the community to take up the task themselves.

“Our community is our strength”, says Mr. Manjunath, emphatically. And that strength has come in handy on more than one occasion. When a TASMAC (the government-owned liquor company) outlet opened close to the village, the organisation joined the local women in protests against the establishment till it was shut down.

“Our community is our strength”. SOFA is empowering community members to collectively take decisions — and more importantly — action, on important issues

These women, who used to have little say in the community, are part of a small federation. They are now more confident and aware of various issues like domestic violence, the need for women’s empowerment, capacity building and more.

In connecting with Rang De, SOFA hopes that the women will be able to sustain their livelihoods, increase household incomes and enjoy greater participation in decision-making.

We are delighted to partner with SOFA and hope that we can anchor sustainability for the people of Sittilingi by facilitating affordable credit.

By Lydia Paulraj

Lydia Paulraj is a member of the Impact team at Rang De.