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"Supporting women entrepreneurs to thrive"

Dossier: Women agribusinesses


Dr Jemimah Njuki's viewpoint

Jemimah Njuki, senior programme specialist at Canada’s International Development Research Center (IDRC), argues that strategic support to women agripreneurs can help them succeed in Africa.

For women in agriculture, are the barriers to expanding a business different to those encountered when launching a business?

Some of the barriers are the same while some are different. For example, barriers such as how women are perceived by society, their ability to make decisions, access to capital, and access to other productive resources are the same. However, business entry barriers can differ from business growth barriers. For example, when women in rural areas start a trading business, they will often start by selling their production surplus. As they expand, their main source of funding may be from relatives and friends, or their local women’s groups. Others may borrow small loans, which can be repaid after a day of trading. And we know that in many developing countries, women tend to start on a very small scale because not much capital is needed for a small business. But women’s business should not just be micro and require micro loans. When women want to expand their businesses, they encounter new barriers: they need to own land and capital assets, obtain a bank loan which requires collateral, know the quality standards (i.e. for export), expand their business networks and deal with society’s negative attitudes toward women who want to get out of the family home and offer their services.

Women are launching economic activities at all levels of the food value chain. Do the barriers differ depending on the nature of their business?

Again, yes and no. In the agricultural production chain, the main barrier maybe ownership and access to land, lack of access to extension services which are still male dominated, capacity to mobilise labour resources in a context where women do not make decisions, or low mobility to access markets. In product processing and sales, what stands in the way of women is access to capital and loans, because investment in equipment is required. For the development of agricultural services, social norms are probably more of a burden. In countries with strict gender norms, mobility of women to enable them to provide services beyond their homes is limited. But similar barriers across all of these activities remain: the political context that denies women the right of ownership; the cultural context that makes women believe they cannot work outside the home, or erodes their confidence and aspirations.

There are, nevertheless, examples of women leading and expanding agribusiness successfully everywhere. IDRC is supporting young entrepreneurs in Kenya who are working in the agriculture sector. Through supporting training in business skills and market development, pairing young entrepreneurs with successful entrepreneurs as mentors and linking them to funding opportunities, the likelihood of their businesses succeeding has increased.

How do social norms impact on women agripreneurs’ activities?

In the majority of African countries, women are still responsible for domestic chores, cleaning, cooking and caring for children – as a result of social norms. This has consequences on women’s available time, which explains why women tend to launch businesses that they can run from home. In addition, there is also the matter of mobility, with women experiencing limited mobility because of their duties at home and perceptions about women’s work. Production choices also differ between men and women, with men tending to invest in higher added-value crops such as cocoa, coffee and tea, and women limiting their production to crops for their family’s ‘basic’ needs. Things are changing, with women entering male-dominated fields, but this change is still slow.

How can we ensure women’s business in agriculture thrive?

There are two levers that need to change for women in agribusiness to thrive – demand and supply levers. On the supply side, women’s own confidence to enter into certain businesses that are male dominated, and networking to share information and to access global markets is critical. There is a history of successful women’s entrepreneurship and mentoring programmes that link young entrepreneurs to successful ones; this can be pivotal.

For those working to support women’s businesses, ensuring that their products and services are inclusive is vital. For example, companies being intentional about sourcing from women-owned businesses or contracting women directly as producers. For financial service providers, ensuring they are gender transformative by designing products that work for women, delivering them in ways that reach women, but also engaging in social marketing that targets changes in norms that disempower women. Underpinning this is shift in societal attitudes to see women as capable entrepreneurs and policies that ensure equitable access to resources, including land.