The Salt Workers Economic Empowerment Program (SWEEP) is a collaborative project of GFI and the Self Employed Workers Economic Women’s Association (SEWA) designed to improve economic opportunity and empowerment for women salt farmers and introduce environmentally sustainable energy solutions to lower production costs so that the poor too can benefit from “green technology.” Capitalizing on sustainable technology and production methods, improved links to high-value markets and greater local control of energy costs, SWEEP gives women salt producers tools, access and voice to better realize profits and maximize their personal and community livelihood goals.
India is currently one of the largest producer of salt products in the world, employing close to a million salt workers across 9 states. The majority of salt farming in India is carried out in the Surendranager District, an area spanning 900 square miles which is completely flooded during the August/September Monsoon. From October to May, salt is “manufactured” from the natural brine deposited in wells of soft gravel, sand, clay, and mud and is “harvested” in a process that has changed very little over the centuries. “Agarias” are the small-producer family farmers that work the salt flats during the dry months and harvest salt for use in manufacturing and commercial processes or in a refined form as table salt.
As with most harvesting and related agricultural work throughout the world, the majority of the production is handled by women and adolescent girls. More than even traditional agricultural labor, the process of “farming” salt is physically intensive and the working conditions on the sun baked and isolated salt pans is severe. Yet, out of tradition, circumstance or simply the lack of any other opportunity, women salt farmers toil in some of most marginalized conditions known on the globe.
Since 1992 SEWA has been working with women salt farmers in the State of Gujarat; focused in the Surendranager District, they provide services including child care, literacy, nutrition, and health care classes. Over the years women in the salt farm communities have increasingly expressed to SEWA a desire to take greater ownership of the salt production process and to get out of the “middlemen” trap where control of the product value chain and profits are controlled by predatory transporters, sellers and processors. In response, SEWA has partnered with GFI to offer technical training to improve product value and production and SEWA has also organized women into savings groups so that investments could be made into direct ownership of production and distribution mechanisms. Additionally, partnerships have been created with research institutes to introduce processes such as reducing calcium sulphate from the sub soil brine to create higher value salt.
While many of these steps offered needed progress and greater solidarity amongst the women salt farmers, breaking the underlying poverty and empowerment cycle remains a major barrier. Salt farmers continue to see potential profits poured into middleman services and despite improved product values, available markets have remained limited. Most significantly, however, women salt famers were held back by the exorbitant cost of diesel fuel. This is due to the unique process of producing salt which requires thousands of gallons of briny water to be pumped into salt pans by means of large diesel powered pumps. The cost of running these pumps represents nearly two-thirds of the total input cost of farming salt in the Surendranager pans and is the major economic barrier for women salt farmers in India. Remove this barrier and add improved market access and greater control of product value chains, and the result is meaningful livelihood development and economic empowerment for women salt farmers. With this goal in mind, the Global Fairness Initiative and SEWA are proposing the launch of a comprehensive Salt Farmers Economic Empowerment Program (SWEEP) in Gujarat.
Drawing on SEWA’s successful work with the Surendranagar’s women salt farmers, the SWEEP Project takes an important step forward by introducing environmentally sustainable energy technology to replace the existing diesel system and to create additional market opportunities and greater ownership of the production value-chain. The key underlying goal is to improve livelihoods and empower 30,000 woman farmers to own both the product and the production process of their salt businesses. Through SWEEP, salt farmers retain profits and increase livelihood opportunities by replacing expensive diesel fuel costs with renewable, locally owner power alternatives built around environmentally sustainable energy solutions deployed at a large. Introducing a local ownership model also allows salt communities to leverage surplus power production and realize additional profits from distribution of power through community based or modular utilities. Specifically, the excess energy obtained through a sustainable grid design creates an enabling environment for the development of sideline industries and enterprises.
Additionally, SWEEP advances local ownership of production inputs (pumps, pans, etc.) and processes (refining, packaging, distribution, etc) to help women salt farmers avoid the costly and demeaning experience of working through predatory middlemen. This ownership is developed through a combination of realized profits and debt financing for targeted infrastructure and supply chain investments. In conjunction with the energy and infrastructure upgrades, a multi-stakeholder engagement process will be undertaken to open linkages to a larger set of end buyers and energy suppliers. This engagement process puts women farmers in direct contact with market players and in lead roles of addressing regulatory and financing barriers. Through this process, and the introduction of new technology, SWEEP taps the livelihood potential of more than 80,000 salt producers in the larger Surendranagar community and creates a diverse and sustainable foundation of economic opportunity and empowerment for women producers.