Empowering women in agriculture is good for business

By Niamh Michail

- Last updated on GMT

Women make up 43% of the agricultural labour force in developing countries but own less land and livestock than men and have less access to credit or cooperatives.
Women make up 43% of the agricultural labour force in developing countries but own less land and livestock than men and have less access to credit or cooperatives.
Empowering women in small-hold agriculture is essential to boosting productivity, creating new product launches and generating business - and companies are starting to realise this, says a Fairtrade Foundation report.

On average, women make up 43% of the agricultural workforce in developing countries, and yet they have very few rights in terms of owning land or livestock, accessing credit loans or participating in co-operatives.

According to the World Bank, the economic repercussions are serious: “This absurd gender gap undermines the sector’s potential to drive inclusive economic growth, improve food security and create employment and business opportunities.”

Yet the Fairtrade report welcomes the "growing commitment" from the food industry to address inequalities and outlines a 7-point strategy for increasing female participation in supply chain businesses. 

Changing attitudes

Recommendations for supply chain businesses

1. Invest in gender analysis of supply chains

2. On the basis of this analysis, develop gender equality policies and action plans

3. Implement this on an internal level

4. Support SPOs to implement their own gender equality action plans. 

5. Monitor progress

6. Collaborate with other businesses & women’s organisations

7. Raise awareness of women’s contribution to production changing attitudes together

A key point is increasing women's membership in Small Producer Organisations (SPOs) which is currently 22%. Yet socio-cultural norms and attitudes about women’s suitability for leadership roles can be a common barrier, and the report stressed the need for close collaboration between all players to address this.

“It must be recognised that there are limits to what SPOs, supply chain businesses and standards systems can achieve individually, particularly in terms of addressing deeply rooted behaviour and attitudes,” ​the report says. 

“Bringing about significant, lasting change requires partnership and collaboration at various levels: between SPOs, government bodies and ... businesses.”

The report highlights SPO success stories - the Ugandan Bukonzo Joint Co-operative Union, which brings together 5,500 coffee-growing households, introduced a policy of joint membership for married couples meaning over 83% of its members are now women.

Meanwhile Ghanaian Fairtrade cocoa co‑operative, Kuapa Kokoo, which counts more than 80,000 members, began by requiring three out of seven elected local village representatives to be women and then worked upwards. By 2014 75% of its National Executive Council members were women, including the president.

Rising up the business agenda

The Fairtrade report also pointed to recent corporate efforts, saying that "recognition of the role of women farmers in agriculture is fast rising up the policy and business agendas, including a growing commitment from companies and donors to invest further in empowering women in agricultural supply chains".

In 2011 US supermarket chain Walmart launched a five year plan​ to empower women working across its supply chain, including the agricultural and manufacturing sectors.

Nestle also says it is putting this approach into practice through a joint programme​ with the International Cocoa Initiative (ICI) which sets up women in the Ivory Coast as cassava farmers. Research has shown that women tend to invest money back into their community and families –  the World Bank estimates that every $10 increase in women’s income has as much effect as an increase of $110 in a man’s income.

The idea driving the scheme is that by giving women their own separate income from selling cassava they can invest this into their children's education, thus reducing child labour on cocoa plantations.

Nick Weatherill, executive director of the ICI said the scheme is already showing results: “Where we have projects up and running, the initial results have been encouraging. The women we have helped are making more money than they need to send two of their children to school.” ​ 

The Fairtrade report echoes a 2014 review commissioned by Mars into the need to empower women, following an Oxfam campaign, Behind the Brands, which highlighted unequal pay, discrimination and hunger on cocoa farms supplying Nestle, Mondelez and Mars.

The full Fairtrade Foundation report can be read here​.


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