In rural Pakistan, most small farmers still farm the traditional peasant way—without modern farming equipment or fertilizers. These farmers concentrate on growing crops with little mind for the complexities of the market, and this puts them at a distinct disadvantage when it comes time to sell their yields to local middlemen. Despite all their hard work, farmers are slowly going bankrupt. Qurban Buriro is organizing farmers into a cooperative association and connecting them with educators and activists who can both introduce them to modern technology and help them to better market their goods.
The New Idea
Agricultural production has changed tremendously around the world, but small Pakistani farmers do not have the tools or the knowledge to keep up. Here, the old farming methods are still in use, methods which hurt the local environment while providing only minimal returns to the farmers. Farmers must borrow at exorbitant rates to finance their land, so they rarely have enough money to invest in the latest technology. Qurban discovered leverage in employing microfinance as a tool in organizing farmers, allowing them to finance and improve their work without going through loan sharks, and to find ways to sell their crops without bowing to the demands of middlemen.
Qurban has also set up a team to act on behalf of the farmers, seeking out new information on raw materials, market opportunities and production techniques and tools. Together, the team and the farmers come up with ways to use this new knowledge to help in their purchases, sale and agricultural decisions. Qurban himself acts as an intermediary, introducing the team to interested outside philanthropists and experts.
Sixty-five percent of Pakistanis work in agriculture, most as small farmers cultivating tiny plots of 12 acres or less. Many farmers are completely ignorant of recent agricultural innovations in pesticides, fertilizers, and seeds that would allow them to grow healthier and more bountiful crops. Some farmers do have access to these tools, but don’t understand enough about them to use them with restraint. For example, in their enthusiasm, some farmers will overspray their fields with pesticides, leading to bumper crops in the short run but eventually leaching all the nutrients from the soil. Such misuse can have long-term degenerative impacts not just on the soilfertility, but also on the health of the consumers and even the farmers themselves.
At the moment, farmers are stuck in a rut, relying on outdated farming methods handed down from their ancestors. If farmers could adapt to the new globalized economy, Qurban believes that they could easily prosper. The financial setup of the Pakistani farming system itself is the main obstacle: Here, farmers borrow loans at very high interest rates from middlemen, using their crops as collateral. Part of the deal is that farmers promise to sell their crops to these financers at their asking rate—which is often obscenely low. If farmers could access modern farming tools and technology without having to make deals with predatory loan sharks, Qubran believes they could easily break out of this cycle of poverty.
Qurban has created the Khajji Cooperative Society (KCS), a village-level organization of farmers. Since farmers are mostly occupied with working their land with little time for outside commitments, they elect from amongst themselves a committee to manage the organizational responsibilities, with two full-time employees (often outside farming activists or financial experts) to oversee the operation. This KCS acts as a credit union, dispersing microcredits to needy farmers, identifying potential borrowers, and assisting workers in credit appraisal.
Helping farmers get financial backing without going through loan sharks was only the first step, however. Next Qurban knew that they had to start increasing their crop yields or they would simply continue their slide into poverty. Qurban started to explore various farming techniques on his own farm to find what tools were best suited to the arid climate and unique soil conditions of Pakistan. He shared his findings with the village organizations and, through seminars and workshops with other groups, explained how local farmers could imitate his successes. He encourages the farmers to invest their microcredits in better training, tools, fertilizers, and seeds.
But all the healthy, bountiful crops in the world mean nothing if the farmers can’t get a fair price for their work on the market. After some intense discussions with farmers, Qurban identified the key problem: Even if they don’t promise their crops to loan sharks, farmers still have to go through middlemen to get their crops to market. These middlemen take a huge chunk of the profits. By organizing the farmers into the KCS, though, Qurban makes it easier for them to collectively negotiate more favorable terms with the middlemen.
Qurban proposes to expand the idea to cotton, wheat, rice, and sugar cane growing farmers also. Once his first five-year plan ends in 2007, he will review and prepare strategies for expansion. He would like farmers from other areas to come to KCS and see how the benefits of this model. He feels confident that, attracted by the good returns, the farmers would want to learn how to start a similar venture in their own communities. At the moment, he is preparing a training plan to help outside farmers do just that. The key is in identifying trustworthy activists to head the KCS committees. These activists will become the leaders of cooperatives in their own area, and KCS will provide them with information and knowledge on how to adapt the model to their own local dynamics.
Qurban went to school, a rare thing at that time for boys in his village. He married at an early age, and soon after his father died, leaving him to support the household. Since his teenage years, he has juggled multiple responsibilities—earning a living, raising a family, completing academic studies, and staying involved in community activism.
Qurban started his career in rural development as a leader of a village community organization offering microcredit to the villagers. The scheme was part of International Labor Organization (ILO) program to bolster small producers. The project was a failure, because farmers didn’t know how to effectively handle the credit and invest it in new tools and technologies. Disheartened, Qurban went back to farming, but he still thought that microcredits could be used to better the farmers’ situation if used properly. He knew that unless farming could be made more profitable, little could be done to improve the living conditions of the people. For the next six to seven years, he farmed his own land, learning the trade and the problems inherent in it.
With farming becoming an increasingly “dead end” job, Qurban decided to find a way to put some life back into it. During discussions with fellow farmers, he realized that if they did not do something together to improve their lot they would become impoverished hostages to middlemen and loan sharks. It was then that they decided to form the organization that grew into a Khajji Cooperative Society.