The Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA) shut down its activities in December 2020 at the end of its mandate. The administrative closure of the Centre was completed in November 2021.

We must improve understanding of the integral role and value of women

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Interview with Jemimah Njuki

Dr Jemimah Njuki, senior programme specialist at Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC), highlights the ongoing challenges that women entrepreneurs face in running a successful agribusiness and offers innovative solutions to better support them.

You’ve spoken a lot about the need to develop inclusive financing mechanisms that address the specific needs and priorities of women. How can financial institutions better support women?

Women-led agribusinesses present a huge opportunity for Africa. Across the continent, 68% of economically active women are in the agricultural sector and the continent has the largest proportion of women entrepreneurs in the world. Yet, women still face significant challenges in accessing finance to grow their agribusinesses. Despite the expansion of microfinance organisations, which now reach millions of women, research shows that the global financing gap for women-owned small and medium-sized enterprises is about €17.5 billion.

We need to recognise that financial inclusion interventions are not gender neutral – women who apply for loans have about a 30% chance of success; much lower than that of men. A lot of effort has been put into trying to make women bankable; training them and organising them into groups, for example. But there needs to be a paradigm shift. We now need to focus on making financial institutions ‘women-able’. There are two things we can do. One is to ensure financial innovations consider gender barriers to meet the specific needs and priorities of women. For instance, women might be running businesses that require purchase of machinery, but they do not hold title to the land their businesses are on. Financing models such as ‘lease to own’ – where instead of relying on land for collateral, the purchased equipment acts as collateral for the loan – would work well in this case. But very few financial institutions are developing these kinds of products. Secondly, we need to ensure that financial inclusion actually leads to improvements in women’s lives and is not an end in itself. IDRC has a programme in Kenya, Rwanda and Tanzania where we are testing ways of integrating gender awareness into financial inclusion products. In Tanzania we are testing whether including gender training for couples when women access financial services, such as bank accounts or mobile loans, ensure women have more control over the loans compared to when gender training is not included.

How can governments ensure that their policies to address gender inequalities are effectively implemented at the local level to support more women-led agribusinesses?

Building a policy and legal framework that supports women and criminalises discrimination by gender is certainly a good place to start. Across the world there are a lot of laws and regulations in place to support women, but there are still some countries where a lot more needs to be done. However, policy and regulation alone is not enough. There are still a lot of societal perceptions that view women as less capable and less able to make important decisions than men. So, there is a part to be played by both society and government at the local level to increase understanding of the integral role and value of women.

One example is land in Kenya. We have a very good constitution that guarantees equal inheritance of land for men and women. However, by the end of 2016, only about 1.5% of all land was registered to women and girls. This imbalance is driven by people’s perceptions about whether girls should inherit land or not – you often hear questions like, “She is going to get married anyway so why should she inherit the family land?” Local bodies that are mandated to legislate on land need to be more aware of the problem and start engaging community leaders to change these perceptions.

CTA held the finals of its latest Pitch AgriHack competition, which specifically focused on women-led ag-tech start-ups, at the recent 2018 African Green Revolution Forum. What are the benefits of such entrepreneurship programmes?

Programmes like Pitch AgriHack have a huge benefit because they help to change perceptions about women’s abilities to run businesses. They provide a platform to showcase women who are running successful businesses, despite the barriers they face, which can boost other women’s confidence and help them to believe in themselves as business leaders.

Of course, entrepreneurship programmes also play a key role in building capacities and providing mentoring opportunities. IDRC, for example, collaborates with business schools to understand what works in supporting women’s businesses. Through a programme with the United States International University (USIU) Africa, we found that if you just provide entrepreneurs with business training, their likelihood of success is about 57%. However, if you combine training with linking entrepreneurs to business support services, such as accounting or business development planning, and provide them with a business mentor, then that increases their likelihood of success to 93%. So, entrepreneurship programmes are also very useful in terms of ensuring the success of women entrepreneurs. However, we must take these programmes further by linking women to the ecosystem in which their business operates to enable them to access the services that they need.

Do you have any inspiring success stories of women who have ‘made it’ as agribusiness owners?

Virginia Thuku is a young Kenyan woman who has gone through the entrepreneurship programme at USIU. She had tried her hand in aquaculture and given up due to various challenges. However, after the training on how to run a business, develop a business plan and identify markets, she started rearing catfish fingerlings. Six months later, she made her first harvest and sold the catfish to nearby institutions. With the profits, Thuku expanded her business; she now has eight ponds and rears at least 7,000 fingerlings at a time. She has linked with research organisations to learn new and cost-effective ways of feeding fish, including the use of insects and algae, and has established markets to sell the fish in bulk. For many women like Thuku, getting these business and technical skills, the market linkages and other linkages to enable them to use the latest technologies, is very important for their success.