Self-help groups help rural Nepali women lease land and grow high value vegetables when rice fields are fallow. Now families can earn income between rice seasons.

Biratnagar, Nepal ─ In a common situation in rural eastern Nepal, 34-year-old Sarita Sah's husband had to travel to India to earn a meager living as a farm laborer due to lack of employment opportunities, until recently.

"We're happy because of the new things that we can afford to buy for our children's schooling, but more than that we're happy because their father does not have to leave us anymore."

Sarita Sah, self-help group member

Today, Sarita Sah and her husband earn an average of NRs10,000-15,000 ($127-$190) twice a year for each vegetable crop they farm. Their three sons now go to a private school and the family can afford to buy them school bags and bicycles to get to school.

"We're happy because of the new things that we can afford to buy for our children's schooling, but more than that we're happy because their father does not have to leave us anymore," she says.

Positive changes of this kind for Sarita Sah and other families in the community have come about through the efforts of a self-help group, established with the support of ADB, and the government of Nepal.

Sarita Sah belongs to Shanti self-help group, which supports land leasing for vegetable cultivation. While group members, mostly women, still work as farm laborers during the rice season, they lease the land and grow high value vegetable crops during the off season.

Group members have received training in vegetable cultivation, and assistance in renting land and buying farming supplies. Today, group members produce a ready-to-market supply of cauliflowers, eggplants, chilies, radishes, pumpkins, cucumbers, broccoli, and bitter gourds.

Benefiting from commercialized agriculture

"Whoever grows the vegetables has the money now."

Ram Rati Mehata, 60, the oldest woman in the Tribeni self-help group

The $1.3 million Improving the Livelihoods of Poor Farmers and Disadvantaged Groups in the Eastern Development Region project was initiated by ADB with support from the government of Nepal and funded by the Japan Fund for Poverty Reduction. It has had more than 12,000 beneficiaries, mostly women like Sarita Sah.

The project improved the livelihoods of rural farm families and integrated them into the development process under the umbrella of 459 self-help groups. It supported Nepalis from lower castes and members of excluded ethnic groups to increase their incomes, participate in literacy programs, and form self-help groups that can now access other government support.

Takashi Matsuo, director of the South Asia Department's Environment, Natural Resources, and Agriculture Division, describes the fact that marginalized groups have benefited from the commercialization of agriculture as a "breakthrough" that wipes out "the general perception that such a change only makes already rich farmers richer."He adds that it is a "model that can be replicated broadly under ongoing and future agriculture programs."

Says Sarita Sah: "My family works together in the plots that we have rented and we are earning quite good money from cultivating vegetables that we sell to the weekly market."

Literacy equals empowerment

At 60, Ram Rati Mehata is the oldest woman in the Tribeni self-help group. She smiles in agreement with another member of the group who says, "Whoever grows the vegetables has the money now."

She belongs to an ethnic community, and used to work as a farm laborer, earning just NRs150 (less than $2) per day. She recalls the hardships of having nothing to eat, and the days when finger millet was precious since it was impossible to get rice.

Such trials started to become a thing of the past when the project provided the opportunity for farm laborers to find alternative sources of income from renting land and cultivating vegetables in the paddy fields between rice seasons. They also enjoy more nutritious food now that they grow their own vegetables.

"I am glad that I can now have cash income to spend for myself without having to depend on my married children," she says.

But the dividends of the self-help groups extend beyond financial independence. A literacy program is a key component of the project, since the majority of the marginalized population - especially women - in the Eastern Development Region have received little or no education.

For 40-year-old home-keeper Shyamo Devi Ram, learning how to read and write has opened opportunities for self-improvement and access to financial and marketing services. Like most other women in her community, she had never attended school.

The project gave her that chance.

"I was offered the chair of our self-help group in the beginning, but because I was illiterate other members disagreed. I felt bad," she says.

Fortunately, she got another chance to seek a position of authority - as chair of the microfinance program being started in her village - after learning to read and write.

Rajbati Devi Sardar, 42 and of low caste, feels equally happy to have attended the literacy program, where she learned to write her name for the first time.

"I can write my name now and I am more confident in selling and buying goods in the market," she says, adding that for her and others like her, the days of being taken advantage of and cheated in market negotiations are over.