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Access to markets is key to empowering women farmers

13 September 2016

Access to markets is key to empowering women farmers

By Geoffrey Nyamota, Farm Africa's Head of Market Engagement

Women make up the backbone of the world’s agricultural labour force. In Africa, where 80% of agricultural production is by smallholder farmers, the majority is done by women in rural areas.

Women's economic empowerment is crucial to sustainable poverty reduction. In order to achieve this the private agricultural sector and development agencies must work together to find ways of successfully integrating women into markets as employees, producers, distributors and consumers. Businesses can and should contribute to poverty reduction by finding ways to ensure that poor and marginalised women are amongst those benefitting from economic development.

Much of the work that female smallholder farmers engage in is unpaid and they are often burdened with numerous responsibilities, including sowing, weeding and harvesting; processing food after harvesting; making food for their families and collecting firewood and water. In addition, women usually take care of children and the elderly, and are the ones responsible for food security in the home. When food is limited, it is women who often receive the smallest portions within the family, and mothers are the ones most likely to miss out on a nutritional diet or access to medical care.

Recognising the specific needs of women and addressing the distinct set of barriers they face is of vital importance to rural economies and is by far the most effective means of fighting hunger and poverty in a sustainable way.

Central to Farm Africa’s market engagement work is the belief that any value chain should be at least 30% female and many of our programmes have an equal gender split. To achieve this, at the project design stage it is crucial to work closely with local communities to ask the right questions, pick the right partners and develop appropriate strategies to ensure the effective integration of women.

At the implementation stage, community facilitators working on the ground need to be sensitive to the issues facing women and design support services accordingly. This includes practical things such as not organising training on market days and making crèche facilities available during training sessions.

Farm Africa takes a value chain approach, which involves identifying a particular product and then working to see who the potential buyers are. We also identify specific markets and see which products are in demand. With regards to supporting women farmers to access market supply chains, the private sector wants to be assured of a specific quality and quantity of product, delivered in a reliable and continuous way. Key to this is ensuring women farmers know what markets there are for products, what kinds of activities are required along the supply chain, and what standard and volume of product is required within what time frame.

When farmers only have a small amount to sell, they often want a higher price for their goods, but this isn’t a viable business approach – with just five kilos it’s hard to negotiate and they often have to take whatever price they are offered.

To help farmers secure better deals, we encourage women to join cooperatives. Together they are better able to consistently supply buyers with the right quality and amount of goods at the right time. Being part of a cooperative that has several tons in one place means farmers have better bargaining power and together they can agree a price that works for both them and for the private sector.

What’s more, because cooperatives keep records of sales, this enables members to get financial support from mainstream financial institutions. This is hugely beneficial to female farmers as many are illiterate or semi-literate and don’t traditionally keep records of their business, and with no proof of their business transactions it is hard for them to get access to finance.

Supporting women to get involved in Village Savings and Loans Schemes helps them develop a culture of saving by borrowing and repaying loans. They can start with small amounts and build up their financial record so that by the time they are able to access bigger loans from financial institutions they understand how the repayment system works. And with these bigger loans, women farmers are able to invest in their businesses and increase their income, and in so doing, work their way out of poverty in a sustainable, long-term way.

This article first appeared in Issue two of 'Agrileaders: the people that make agri happen', the official magazine of the African Agri Council