Professionalising women farmers: Key to success

Women’s organisations are becoming more professional and taking the lead across many value chains, which is driving up yields and strengthening the agricultural sector.

Technology, capacity building, business advice and access to capital are key to women’s success in agribusiness © IFPRI/Milo Mitchell
Technology, capacity building, business advice and access to capital are key to women’s success in agribusiness © IFPRI/Milo Mitchell

Thursday, 01 March 2018

When women farmers’ organisations become more professional, communities benefit from better yields, increased incomes and more structured value chains.

In the Pacific, “Women are the backbone of communities and families,” says Lavinia Kaumaitotya, programme manager of the Pacific Island Farmers Organisation Network. The same holds true in Africa and the Caribbean. However, women farmers in developing countries tend to run smaller farms than men, are less well-educated or even illiterate, and often find it harder to access fertiliser, improved seed, decent equipment and information.

And yet the need for empowering women to enhance their agricultural production is clear. In 2011, FAO’s Annual Report on the State of Food and Agriculture called for more investment in capacity building for women farmers: “Just giving women the same access as men to agricultural resources could increase production on women’s farms in developing countries by 20% to 30%. This could raise total agricultural production in developing countries by 2.5% to 4%, which could in turn reduce the number of hungry people in the world by 12% to 17%, or 100 to 150 million people.”

The benefits of coming together

Cooperatives, which are often the first level at which smallholder farmers organise, offer a range of benefits to farmers. In Senegal, the Federation of Women Processors of Saint-Louis Region is an umbrella body of women farmers groups and associations that represents close to 50,000 women farmers. The Federation has partnered with AfricaRice’s Sahel Regional Station to expand the availability of foundation and certified rice seed to its members, and provide them with training in cultivation. “They [the women] have been able to produce seeds or access quality certified seeds and abandon the use of mixed seed, which previously affected the quality of paddy rice production,” says Peinda Cissé, founder of the federation.

According to FAO, women make up 43% of the agriculture workforce in developing countries yet they are still poorly represented in transport, marketing and sales – the most professional parts of the agricultural value chain. However, cooperatives, can play a vital role in helping women acquire new technical skills and better equipment.

“My land is hilly. When the rain comes, erosion is a big problem. RADA [Rural Agriculture Development Authority] staff [working with the cooperative] taught me about hedgerows and advised on the best crops to plant,” a woman farmer from the Guys Hill Limited Cooperative in Jamaica explains in a study on the opportunities and challenges for women of farming cooperatives.

Agnes Apea, who promotes women’s rice farming in Uganda, summarises the issue in a blog for Spore magazine: “Technology, capacity building, business advice and access to capital are key to women’s success in agribusiness.” Cooperatives and other organisations can provide these very skills and services.

The need for an integrated approach

But for women to acquire new professional skills, they also need to play a greater role in collective organisations. Between 2011 and 2015, the Global Fund for Women’s Rural Women Striding Forward initiative granted loans averaging €9,500 to 22 women’s groups in Burkina Faso, Kenya and Uganda. The money was used to fund training in farming techniques, business and advocacy, as well as awareness-raising on women’s rights, enabling the women to make their voices heard in community organisations. As a result, yields went up by between 5% and 50%, women saw their income rise by 30% on average, most of the households involved were eating three meals a day, and many beneficiaries attained an equal standing with men as pillars of their communities.

Looking beyond the figures, the initiative has also had other benefits. “We’ve seen women being elected to village councils, delivering literacy classes and forming their own advocacy networks,” explains Muadi Mukenge, former programme director for sub-Saharan Africa at the Global Fund for Women. “They’re now playing the same role in the community as they do at home.”

According to the Global Fund for Women, “Through an integrated approach, grantees demonstrated the extent to which women’s success in agriculture and as farmers is closely correlated to knowledge of their rights and the opportunity to assert themselves within their communities and at higher levels.”

“More diverse organisations tend to be more professional and perform better,” says Mascha Middelbeek, an agribusiness adviser and expert on cooperatives. The reason for this better performance is that diverse organisations consider everyone’s needs. “When aiming at more and improved women’s representation in farming organisations, women’s leadership training can come in. It is important to strengthen the capacities of women leaders to become ambassadors for the female members and represent their interests.”

The International Fund for Agricultural Development’s Roots and Tubers Market-Driven Development programme, which ran in Cameroon between 2003 and 2011, helped strengthen women farmers’ and processors’ governance, analysis and organisational management capacities. In turn, cassava, yam and potato production rose by 214%, 187% and 135% respectively. As their income increased, women came to realise their importance in the value chain and gained the confidence they needed to play a fuller role in collective decision-making. By the end of the programme, women made up 95% of village committee members – bodies previously dominated by men.

The role of the private sector

Governments can help create the conditions for women farmers to become more professional by ensuring their rights to land, finance and inputs are recognised and upheld and by encouraging farmers’ organisations to give equal opportunities to women members for leadership roles. Investment in establishing improved food production, processing and marketing infrastructure is also key.

The private sector also has a role to play. In a report entitled Investing in Women Along Agribusiness Value Chains, the International Finance Corporation (IFC) calls for women to be involved at every stage of the value chain – from crop-growing, harvesting, processing and storage, through to transport, marketing and sales. It urges the private sector to implement measures to help women access credit, land and inputs, to involve them in vocational training programmes, and to make sure they are paid fairly. In return, states the report, agribusiness companies would benefit from a better image, see customer loyalty improve, have guaranteed sales, be able to access new consumers, and be better able to link farmers with market outlets for their produce.

In 2015, Mars launched a plan to strengthen its supply chain, with a strong emphasis on women’s empowerment, to make sure it had enough cocoa to meet demand for its chocolate. The company teamed up with the NGO CARE International to support women in 25 communities in Côte d’Ivoire, providing loans and helping them to access finance. The women farmers also attended farmer field school training sessions and received technical support. According to the IFC report, the initiative helped boost farmers’ productivity and guaranteed a steady supply of cocoa to Mars.


Vincent Defait

Other dossiers

Facts and Figures

Technology, capacity building, business advice and access to capital are key to women’s success in agribusiness © IFPRI/Milo Mitchell

SOURCE: IFC report (2016) - Investing in Women along Agribusiness Value Chains

The Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA) is a joint international institution of the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) Group of States and the European Union (EU). CTA operates under the framework of the Cotonou Agreement and is funded by the EU.