What does it mean to have power in supply chains?

Earlier in the year, George Williams visited Traidcraft’s projects in Odisha, India. Here, he reflects on what it means to have ‘power in supply chains’.

In the Eastern Indian state of Odisha, Traidcraft has partnered with organic cotton specialists ‘Forum for Integrated Development’. Together we’re working with around 4,000 extremely poor households in the districts of Kalahandi and Rayagada.

The primary cash crop in the area is cotton and Traidcraft has a long history of working in the Indian cotton sector, including developing the standards for Fairtrade cotton and the world’s first Fairtrade cotton supply chains. The work in Odisha builds on this learning and experience, but it’s about much more than cotton.

Farmers are being trained on agro-ecological approaches that enable them to reduce their costs of production and lessen their dependence on potentially dangerous chemical fertilisers and pesticides. Farmers are now growing intercrops between their cotton rows to boost soil fertility and to attract insects that feed on the pests that attack cotton. Often these are food crops (pulses and legumes) which improve household food security – especially important as these are districts where malnutrition is common.

In March of this year I spent a week visiting the area, talking with farmers and trying to understand the difference that this project is making to people’s lives.

The farmers that I spoke to described changes such as increased yields, reduced costs of production, eradication of potentially dangerous chemicals, improved household food security and higher incomes. These are all positive and important changes and prompted me to think about how they link to Traidcraft’s broader aim of rebalancing power in supply chains. For a crop like cotton, which is traded and processed in long and complex supply chains, what does ‘rebalancing power’ mean in practical terms to farmers living in remote rural communities and cultivating tiny plots of land?

Long before I joined Traidcraft, the organisation pioneered a useful analysis tool called ‘the market map’. The idea is to map out in a flow diagram all the critical stages involved in the supply chain of a product (e.g. cotton clothing). This diagram is then situated within a map of all the key influences that affect it (e.g. environmental factors, trading regulations, political decisions) as well as the key services that are required for the supply chain to function effectively. We often work on agricultural produce, and so the kinds of services that you see in a market map include things like provision of agri-inputs, agricultural extension services, weather forecasting services and market information.

Our training has encouraged farmers to produce their own organic fertilisers

Returning to the question of what rebalancing power means to the small-scale cotton farmers I met in Odisha, in nearly every group discussion we had with farmers they said that they had particularly valued learning about how to produce their own bio-inputs (fertilisers and pesticides made with locally available organic inputs such as garlic and chilli). There were two reasons for this: it reduced the costs of production and, just as critically, reduced the dependence of farmers on the traders that had been exploiting them.

Farmers described how they had previously needed to buy the necessary chemicals for their cotton production from local traders despite knowing that these traders were cheating them on price and quality. Now they are practising organic cotton production and using their own bio-inputs, farmers are no longer exposed to this exploitation.

This is just one small example of how Traidcraft’s work with small scale farmers helps to address the power imbalances within supply chains. What was particularly fascinating for me in these conversations was that while this rebalancing of power did have an important financial dimension, farmers focussed as much on the pride and confidence that came with being able to move away from their reliance on traders that had been treating them unfairly. To my mind, this speaks to the fact that power imbalances are more than just about income. They are a question of justice, and that is why Traidcraft will always work to empower the marginalised and less powerful.

George Williams is Traidcraft Exchange's Programme Funding Manager

Our work in Odisha is generously supported with lead-funding from the Big Lottery Fund and match-funding from various trusts, foundations and individual supporters.