At CTA, Sabdiyo Dido Bashuna’s role is to facilitate understanding of the business opportunities within agriculture © CTA
What are the key challenges facing women working in the agricultural sector?
The challenges for women in agriculture vary depending on the level they work at within the sector. Research suggests that up to 80% of labour in the agricultural sector is provided by women. For these women at the production end of the chain, one key challenge is balancing their time between all their different responsibilities. In most rural areas, women do almost all the household work and, at the same time, they work in the field. The fact that women are confined to the home means that they have no time to get out and learn new skills, interact with new people or gain new experiences. For example, many women producers don’t have the opportunity to go to the marketplace to understand how markets work and see the new commodities and services that are out there? So this is a big challenge in terms of exposure, as it limits their knowledge and ability to acquire personal attributes for self-development, which they need to be able to progress in the work that they do.
Another challenge of course relates to women’s limited ownership of productive assets. Land is generally owned by the male head of the family and women are mostly just passive participants in production activities. So when there is land to be tilled, and planting, weeding or harvesting to be done, the women do all this, but they do not have decision-making authority over the land, in regards to how it is used and what crops are produced. So these are some of the main challenges for women at the production end.
If we move to the business side, we have to acknowledge that the women who actually get into business have already overcome the barrier of being confined to a home, so they either have some level of education or some level of exposure to allow them to get into agribusiness. The majority of women-led agribusinesses are small as they need capital to become big, and most women have no way of borrowing capital because they have no collateral and financing institutions see their agribusinesses as very risky. So a lot of the time these small businesses collapse. But we also have to appreciate that there are women who are in bigger businesses in agriculture, such as horticulture exports, milk processing and grain milling. The constraints of these women are different; they are often confronted with societal perception about what they should and should not do as they are operating outside of the domestic sphere. This can make it quite difficult for women business leaders to penetrate market networks which give them the right intelligence to know where to move their products and how to market them, which puts them at a disadvantage compared to their male competitors.
How is CTA working to address these challenges and help more women increase their incomes?
We are supporting women entrepreneurship in agriculture and are launching a continental programme called VALUE4HER, which is focused on helping women to access better value in the agricultural sector. So we are looking at women who are in export businesses, processing businesses and bulking businesses, for example. We are helping these women access higher value markets, acquire the knowledge, skills and confidence to operate effectively in such markets, and access the capital that they need to grow their business. We are also helping women agribusiness leaders to connect back to the sources of their product and the beginning of the supply chain. In this way, we are actually helping business women to connect with women farmers and smaller agribusinesses who supply them so that they are able to grow together. We are doing this because it’s clear from research that women learn better from exposure to other women who have been able to progress well within the same type of business.
We are going to showcase the women entrepreneurs who will be taking part in the programme to get them known and help them to penetrate the market better, as well as attract global companies that would like to partner with them. Of course, we are also building up their skills base and knowledge of markets, and introducing them to new markets. Right now, we are planning two major events, the first is going to be in March 2018 in Dakar, Senegal. Then we also have another showcasing event at the European Development Days in June 2018.
Are there any women agribusiness leaders that you particularly admire and would hold up as good role models?
Wow, where to start. Dr Agnes Apea is really very inspirational. This is somebody who did not get into agriculture out of desperation like most women, but rather she has a passion for her country’s people who she really wanted to help. She is from a post-conflict area in northern Uganda and she saw all of this wasted capacity as women struggled to support their families. Agnes started her business, Mama Rice, to help women produce rice and access new markets in an area that has no history of rice production. She has built up her company and is now a big-time processor supplied by about 5,000 women producers. This for me is a classic success story. We aim to build up women’s entrepreneurship so that they can help other women in the sector. Small women-led agribusinesses need a market leader to pool their produce and help them access profitable markets, otherwise they will just remain fragmented and small. Through a cooperative arrangement, like the one Agnes has developed with Mama Rice, it is possible to empower women to systematically increase the quality and value of their product, so that they can improve their livelihoods.
Another great example is Rose Mutuku. She is a big-time grain bulker, but she previously had a high-flying job earning a lot of money until she realised she should be helping people. So Rose left her job and built up a company called Smart Logistics Solution Limited from scratch. She now sources grain from all over Eastern Africa, but she still can’t get enough to meet demands. She has many women suppliers, who she particularly wants to support. We have Eleni Gabre-Madhin in Ethiopia as well, who created an agribusiness incubator, BlueMoon, and is featured in another Spore interview. These are interesting examples of how women are coming into agribusiness and changing the game for other women, including young people.
Do you have any advice for young women who want to scale up their agricultural activities and establish profitable agribusinesses?
My advice for women is just go and try it, nobody is going to give them the freedom to do it, they just have to push it. I think that society limits women, and boundaries for women have to be challenged every day. I believe in expanding the space for women in agriculture by challenging societal boundaries myself every day, and other women have to do the same. So, if you want to do business and you are passionate about it, just get out there and do it. There is quite a bit of support out there, either from organisations like CTA or from networks of women entrepreneurs, who have done this before – the likes of Agnes, Rose and Eleni. Of course, they are very busy but, they are happy and willing to spend the little free time they can find helping other women to rise up through the ranks.
The environment is now much more conducive than it was a couple of years ago. In a number of developing countries, certainly in Africa, there is more and more recognition of the importance of encouraging entrepreneurship among women. So, there is growing interest in supporting women, but the women themselves have to take up this opportunity and do something with it, the initiative has to come from both sides.
Have things improved for women since you first started working in the sector? If so, how? What more needs to be done?
Things have improved a lot. Increasingly, people are realising that we need more women in leadership positions and managerial roles. Even if it still isn’t a reality in practice, at least they are thinking about it and the awareness is now there. So I think things have changed. A few years back you could only talk about women in small agribusinesses, but now we have women in big agribusinesses who are really supplying global markets – they are exporters now, they are big time bulkers and they are women processors. These are all new developments.
There are also more and more services, especially financial services, targeted towards women. There are now organisations that have recognised that they need to give women flexible financing and there are more global companies that want to link up with women because they have seen that women are more resilient and trustworthy than men. In contract farming, for example, experiences have shown that women are more loyal to contractual obligations, and in corporate managerial settings there is a recognition that the diversity of opinion of men and women is useful to steer progress forward. However, in practice, efforts to increase opportunities for women in agribusiness aren’t moving as fast as the realisation that attitudes need to change. For me, this comes down to addressing the subconscious bias of the leaders making decisions in agriculture, which remains a significant challenge to gender equality in the sector.
Do you think that ICTs and other technologies have the potential to further increase women’s empowerment?
Yes, certainly. Technology is an equaliser, if women have access to it, then it makes us all equal. I think we have to really promote women’s access to ICTs, mobile phones and other technologies, to give women better access to information as this is very crucial and we need to continue to support it. Of course, many rural women have a low literacy level so their ability to navigate and get more information through ICTs is limited. But when they do get access to information about market prices and weather forecasts, for example, it can vastly improve their livelihoods. This information is now increasingly available in different forms, including voice messages, thanks to technology.
In regards to paying women smallholder suppliers for agricultural produce, if payment comes directly to their mobile phone then the chances of that income filtering away to other users is limited. One of the big challenges that women have is that the income from their work is used in ways that they have absolutely no control over. If women themselves have control over their income via their mobile phones, they can direct it more towards household food security, as well as education, clothes and nutrition for their children.
CTA is promoting the use of ICTs in all of our projects, in a variety of different ways. For example, in one of the projects that I manage we are using phones to help farmers’ access weather information, to help them make informed decisions in advance of an oncoming drought. With this information they can decide whether to buy insurance or sell off their produce and how much they should keep for the coming dry season. So it gives them information to be able to manage their produce and their agricultural activities much better. Of course, what underlies all of this, especially for women, is that they need to have access to phones, but phone ownership for women is increasing and I think this is a revolution that really can change the game for women in agriculture.