Beyond beneficiary numbers: Unlocking the potential of women farmers

After five years of piloting smallholder-friendly procurement models in 20 diverse countries, Purchase for Progress (P4P) has released a new report reviewing how market development can and cannot promote women’s empowerment based upon five years of field experience.

A modified version of this blog post was published on the Guardian Global Development Profession Network 12 June 2014.

In developing countries, women are the backbone of the rural economy and are responsible for 60 to 80 percent of food production. They are also highly knowledgeable about crop varieties.

However, women face many challenges that can preclude them from independently owning or managing land and productive assets. In many households, men control the production and marketing of crops as well as household finances. According to UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), if women had the same access to these resources as men, they could increase agricultural yields by 20-30 percent, lifting 100-150 million people out of hunger.

As the world’s largest humanitarian agency, the World Food Programme (WFP) is a major buyer of staple food, procuring over US$ 1 billion for cash annually. In 2013, WFP bought nearly 80  percent of this food in developing countries. Purchase for Progress (P4P) is a WFP pilot initiative which, over the past five years, has experimented with smallholder-friendly procurement models targeting smallholder farmers in Africa, Asia and Latin America. The rationale behind P4P is to provide smallholders with the opportunity to improve their agricultural production, and an incentive to do so, as they benefit from an assured market in which to sell their surplus crops, dependent upon quality and price.

The P4P pilot specifically targeted women farmers in order to address the particular difficulties they face, with an ambitious goal to have 50 percent women participants. While P4P succeeded in tripling women’s participation in P4P-supported farmers' organizations from 100,000 to 300,000 during the pilot period, the experience demonstrated that mere numerical participation in a project does not directly translate into a positive impact on the lives of women farmers, nor provide them with the same financial gains as their male counterparts.

These are some of the key lessons learned that will help empower women and reduce poverty and hunger:

Read more about the lessons learned in the new report: 
“P4P’s Women’s Empowerment Pathways: Roadblocks and Successes” 

Context-specific action plans

In order to empower women economically, the underlying causes of income inequalities must be addressed. Due to the immense variation between culture, religion, and infrastructure which can exist even in areas only a few miles apart, strategies to empower women farmers cannot be ‘one-size-fits-all’. Implementation must be informed by country-level, context- and culturally-specific assessments to determine the needs of women farmers on a community, regional and country level in order to tailor approaches which will address underlying causes of inequality while ensuring women’s well-being. This should be informed by a broader gender strategy which establishes long-term goals and guides the intervention.

Targeting women farmers:

Targeting women farmers can be challenging, because they may not be active in farmers’ organizations, and often produce crops for household consumption rather than for sale. Additionally, women farmers take on different and often overlapping roles; contributing their labour as unpaid family workers, taking on farm work as casual agricultural labourers, and sometimes as the principal producers of crops.  Women in the different roles will have different needs and interests and it is important to target support accordingly.

Equipment and capacity development:

Labour and time saving technologies and practices that contribute to reducing women’s workload and save them time are an important aspect to address if market development programmes are to succeed in empowering women, both socially and economically. Women also need assistance to develop the capacity necessary in order to increase their incomes. For this, a vital first step is to provide them with training as well as agricultural inputs and credit so that they can produce more, aggregate their crops, and market them collectively. However, giving women farmers the tools to produce more and market their crops does not guarantee that they will be able to do so or benefit economically from their work.

Inclusion of men:

Effective gender sensitization efforts incorporate the needs of communities, responding to the opportunities, challenges, and recommendations identified by country- and region-specific assessments. One effective method has been to ensure the inclusion of both men and women during gender sensitization, in order to acquire the buy-in of the most influential members of communities, such as religious and customary leaders, who are generally male. Within P4P, this has often been achieved by stressing the economic gains for households and communities which embrace gender equality. In many contexts, these methods have assisted men to understand that women’s empowerment does not mean men’s disempowerment. In the same way, male authorities and community leaders have played vital roles in supporting the increased agricultural production and economic gains of women farmers under the P4P pilot.

Be aware of the risks:

By overlooking generations-old cultural norms, initiatives which seek to empower women can cause social isolation and risk the safety of participants. Malawi is one example where some women farmers reported forceful resistance at household level, as the male heads of household resisted their wives’ efforts to independently earn and control income.  This highlights the importance of carefully designing culturally and context appropriate interventions in order to ensure the safety of women participants. Household negotiation is a powerful tool which can assist women to strategically gain voice and influence, while simultaneously reducing pressure within their households.

Tools for household negotiation:

A household negotiation approach emphasizes the inclusive management of household resources, assisting women and men to improve their collaboration at a household level. A woman farmer and field monitor named Mazouma, from Burkina Faso, says that in her community, many women are now able make family decisions in collaboration with their husbands, making it easier to manage their income. She also says that this has led to the increased inclusion of women in decision-making and planning in their farmers’ organizations and communities.

Any assessment of gender achievements must go beyond counting the number of women vs men involved. Nuanced examinations will inform new methods to more effectively facilitate the empowerment of women farmers. One such lesson learned for WFP was the importance of emphasizing the procurement of traditional “women’s crops”, such as niébé, in order to best increase women’s participation to sales. 

Blog post by Ken Davies, Global Coordinator Purchase for Progress (P4P)