In the 1960s, India was facing a food crisis. Traditional methods of farming weren’t keeping pace with population growth. While a national campaign called “Miss a Meal” ran full-page ads in the country’s major newspapers asking people to skip dinner, Indian farmers scrambled to find a sustainable, long-term solution to hunger.
The result was an agricultural, or “green” revolution largely fueled by the Indian Farmers Fertilizer Cooperative (IFFCO), now the world’s largest fertilizer and marketing co-op. Celebrating its 50th anniversary in November 2017, IFFCO, USAID and NCBA CLUSA share a unique history that demonstrates the power of the cooperative business model, and how partnerships can support meaningful change.
“The setting up of the Indian Farmers Fertilizer Cooperative was a Green Revolution triumph,” Dr. Udai Shanker Awasthi, Managing Director and CEO of IFFCO, said in an interview with NCBA CLUSA. “It has particular relevance for today’s food needs, just as it did in the 1960s.”
NCBA CLUSA’s international work in India began in 1953 in response to a request from the Indian Cooperative Union. Through an office in New Delhi, NCBA CLUSA—then known as the Cooperative League of the USA—helped develop and strengthen dairy, fertilizer, farm machinery and other cooperative sectors across the country. Initially, Nationwide Insurance, a prominent NCBA CLUSA member, sponsored a five-person team to advise cooperative leaders in India on next steps. The team recommended cooperatives undertake fertilizer production and distribution as part of an overall development plan in 1961.
By the mid-60s, new, high-yielding varieties of grain were introduced in India that needed fertilizer to maximize their potential. Despite marketing close to 70 percent of the country’s fertilizers, cooperatives in India had no fertilizer production facilities at the time. So, in late 1964, NCBA CLUSA and the government of India began exploring the idea of collaborating with Indian co-ops to establish a fertilizer plant in the country that would bridge that demand-supply gap.
Led by Dr. Allie Felder, NCBA CLUSA’s Representative for India, with a small initial investment from USAID, a team of experts studied the feasibility of a network of fertilizer plants entirely owned and operated by Indian cooperatives. In October 1967, IFFCO was founded with 57 co-ops and a mission to empower India’s farmers and feed a nation.
Five decades later, IFFCO has become an engine of the Indian economy, contributing to over 20 percent of the country’s fertilizer production, with revenues of nearly $5 billion USD per year.
Over the past five decades, IFFCO has moved forward in lockstep with the country, Dr. Awasthi said. “There is a deep resonance between IFFCO’s growth and the development of Indian society; our trajectories run in parallel. Working together democratically to improve our farmers’ lives and to achieve sustainability is our path into the future—for the nation, and for IFFCO,” he said.
Its size and scope, however, have scaled dramatically. Today, IFFCO boasts close to 40,000 cooperatives offering its 55 million farmer members insurance, telephone, healthcare and financial services in addition to its core business of manufacturing and selling crop fertilizers. IFFCO’s network reaches India’s most remote and challenging terrains, and its international footprint extends to the Middle East, Africa and Canada. As IFFCO moves into its next 50 years, Awasthi believes the cooperative business model is uniquely poised to strengthen the global economy.
IFFCO’s Vision 2020 plan challenges the co-op to be a global leader in fertilizer production, reduce energy consumption through better resource management and achieve its fertilizer marketing target of 15 million tons per year by 2020, among other goals. “In a world that is shrinking day by day due to technical advances and the convergence of information and communications technologies, co-ops have an important role to play in providing a business model that is proven to be successful and sustainable,” Awasthi said.
From a small investment and the right support and partnerships, IFFCO is now a driving force behind development across India, an inclusive and stable part of the country's agriculture sector and a leader in the international co-op community.