Maxime Houinato: “If we want to change agriculture, we can’t ignore women”

Dr Maxime Houinato, formerly of Oxfam, is now the Mali representative for UN Women. Here, he outlines the aims of the Women’s Agriculture and Sustainable Development (AgriFed) programme and stresses how women play a vital role in adopting new climate-resilient farming practices.

Dr Maxime Houinato speaks on the importance of supporting Malian women farmers to take up sustainable agriculture and build their climate resilience © Patterson Siema/UN Women

In early 2018, of the 55 African Union member states, Mali was awarded one of the highest scores for its progress towards agricultural transformation. How has the country been investing in agriculture to improve livelihoods and increase the sector’s climate resilience? 

Some 15% of Mali’s state budget is spent on agriculture – well ahead of the 10% Maputo Declaration target. Mali has combined a number of strategies, investing chiefly in agricultural water systems, mechanisation, subsidised inputs, cloud seeding, price support measures (such as in the cotton sector), strengthening farmers’ organisations, and making the legislative framework for the sector more effective. The country has adopted a National Agricultural Sector Investment Plan, along with a separate action and climate change adaptation plan, to make sure these investments deliver real change.  

In the past, the prices that farmers received for their produce were dictated by wholesalers, mid-level distributors and retailers. But the authorities have shown a real determination to put an end to all that, helping farmers become better organised and trained so they can extract maximum value for their output, and placing small-scale farmers at the heart of Mali’s agricultural development strategy. As a consequence, Mali has a more modern, climate-resilient agricultural system, and production and productivity have increased across key sectors that are vital to the country’s economy – especially cotton and cereal crops like rice and maize. 

The UN Women AgriFed programme aims to help small-scale farmers adapt to climate change. What climate-smart solutions does it promote 

AgriFed disseminates climate-smart agriculture solutions through climate-smart agriculture best practice immersion centres, which showcase agricultural best practice and innovative technical packages (training in climate-resilient agro-ecological practices). Through this programme, our aim is to promote sustainable farmland management (for example by restoring degraded land and introducing innovative agro-forestry practices), and to help women’s groups become better organised and encourage women farmers to share their experiences.  

We provide training in eco-friendly farming methods, such as using biofertilisers and micro-doses of fertiliser, and employing biopesticides for pest management. The programme is also supporting the mechanisation of vegetable production to boost yields, as well as training farmers to make organic compost and helping them to use hedgerows and restore degraded land. Moreover, by installing rain gauges on farmland and using ICTs, we’re giving farmers the climate information they need to select locally appropriate seed varieties, schedule field work to coincide with rainfall patterns, and use fertilisers that are better suited to variable climate conditions. 

Why is it so important to support women farmers in Mali to adopt sustainable agricultural techniques 

Women are heavily involved in agriculture but largely invisible. As a marginalised workforce, they’re especially vulnerable to climate change and to social, economic and political instability. In 2015, there were around 7 million women involved in agriculture in Mali – 49% of the farming population. So we can’t ignore them, especially if we want significant numbers of farmers to switch to sustainable farming practices.  

Moreover, there’s potential for significant growth in vegetable production – a widespread practice in Mali’s key farming regions, especially those covered by the programme. For instance, shallot, onion and potato yields are particularly high, at over 11 t/ha.  

In 2014-2015, some 70.2% of vegetable growers were women. It’s a productive pursuit even in small spaces, provided that plots are properly equipped and managed. Yet vegetable production doesn’t enjoy the same level of government support as other sectors such as cotton and cereal crops.  

By training women to use modern, sustainable vegetable growing systems, we can help them boost their output and make a real difference to nutritional standards across Mali. By the same token, these women will enjoy a better standard of living for themselves and their families because they’ll earn more income from selling their produce.  

Beyond the field, women often lack access to information about nutrition and post-harvest preservation techniques. What are the benefits of educating women in these areas? 

As I mentioned, women tend to hold the key to food security and balanced nutrition. When they have access to climate-resilient seed varieties, and when they’re trained in sustainable farming practices and good storage and conservation practices, they’re able to produce better quality crops and reduce their losses. By training women in these areas, for products like shallots, we hope to see women farmers extending their shelf life by at least 3 months. And rather than selling shallots at €0.90 (CFA 600) a kilo during the harvest period, they’ll be able to hold on to their output for 3-6 months longer and sell it out of season for around €1 (CFA 700) a kilo.  

Because women do the cooking at home, training them in good nutrition practices has a direct impact on family life. Women could also use some of the surplus crops they produce to run processing businesses. By diversifying in this way, women can feed their families a healthier diet and earn more income. And that, in turn, means they’ll have more money to spend on their children’s health and education, they’ll enjoy a better standing in their communities, and they’ll play a greater role in local decision-making. 

A key barrier for women farmers is the difficulties they face in accessing finance. How has UN Women been working to overcome this challenge? 

The AgriFed programme is using several strategies to tackle the finance problems that women farmers face. For instance, women farmers need to be financially literate, so the programme is teaching them how loans work and how to apply for them, and also how to negotiate with financial institutions. One of the savings mobilisation strategies we’re using is the ‘tontine’ system, whereby women’s groups pay contributions to a central fund and lend money to individual members in turn. Systems like this are already up and running in some villages.  

We’ve also launched the Buy from Women platform, a data-driven, mobile-enabled supply chain system that connects women farmers to information, finance and markets. Financial institutions can also use the platform to access real-time information about registered women’s groups and individual entrepreneurs, such as production forecasts, customer lists, formal orders and revenue. Potential backers can examine this information, along with the beneficiaries’ business plans, to inform financing decisions. 

Yet most women’s organisations still struggle to access finance because they have no collateral or credit history. That’s why the programme has set up a support scheme to identify how much finance women farmers need and how much they are able to repay, help them to draw up basic business development plans that are adapted to their needs, and improve their financial literacy and business acumen. 

UN Women is currently in talks with the National Agricultural Development Bank of Mali and the First Microfinance Agency to devise a range of products suited to women farmers’ needs. Financial institutions will have access to gender-sensitive analysis tools and will be invited to training sessions explaining how to use the tools, and the products will be offered to AgriFed beneficiaries on preferential terms.

Vincent Defait

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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.