In Ethiopia, WFP Agriculture Initiative Opens Doors For Rural Women

In Ethiopia, the WFP Purchase for Progress (P4P) programme buys large amounts of maize from smallholder farmers via cooperative unions and is helping transform livelihoods, but bringing women farmers into the programme has remained a major challenge. To overcome that challenge, WFP launched a P4P gender initiative three years ago, which is starting to bear fruit in Ethiopia.

ANJA CHEFA – “Busha budete.”These two words keep recurring as Yonal Lamiso speaks during a community conversation in Anja Chefa, a village near Hawassa in southern Ethiopia. The phrase means “bad culture,” and it refers to what women are not allowed to do in the community under customary law. 

His wife, Nigist Melese, elaborates: “In our culture women are not allowed to learn, wives are prepared to get married,” she says, before describing how things are beginning to change, at least in their family.

Now, she says, she and her husband have discussions and mutual agreement about the products of their farm, what type of business to set up, and how to use the household money. 

Nigist says the changes are among the benefits of P4P-sponsored community conversations focused on addressing cultural and traditional behaviors that limit participation of women in agricultural farming practices. 

These community conversations started two years ago involving more than 1,000 men and women in 16 groups in the Amhara, Oromiya and SNNPR regions. 

“When WFP launched P4P, we were asked to achieve parity, 50 percent men and 50 percent women, in farmers’ organizations reached by P4P globally,” explains Mauricio Burtet, WFP’s head of P4P in Ethiopia. 

“But the reality [in Ethiopia] is very different, as members of farmers’ organizations are mostly men,” says Mauricio.  “Because we knew the 50 percent target was not achievable, we decided to opt for quality rather than quantity when it came to getting more women involved.”

Thanks to the P4P gender programme, Nigist received a loan of 6,000 Ethiopian birr (ETB), or about US$300, and started a small oxen-fattening business.  When she sold her first ox, she made a profit of 1,500 ETB (about US$75), and was able to repay her loan on time. 

Her husband, Yonal, acknowledges the benefits of such a programme for the farm and their six children: “Our economy is increasing and we are equally making a business,” he says. 

Women’s participation – advantages and barriers

In developing countries, women are involved in most of the food production, but generally because of cultural or legal constraints they do not own or manage land or productive assets. According to FAO, if women had the same access as men to resources they could increase agricultural yields by 20 percent to 30 percent, lifting millions of people out of hunger. For WFP’s P4P programme, supporting women farmers is a priority so that they gain greater control over their lives as well as an enhanced voice at community level.

In Ethiopia, being recognized as a farmer requires owning land, and land is traditionally owned and controlled by men, who inherit it from their fathers. Women comprise only 15 percent of the membership of farmers’ organizations in Ethiopia, and only 5 percent of their leadership.

In order to get better women’s participation, P4P supported the regional governments in setting up women-led farmer organizations who can benefit from P4P market opportunity from which WFP buys food.

In 2010, a gender analysis of the P4P programme was conducted in Ethiopia and found that men and women perceive land and livelihoods issues quite differently. The analysis found that men believed that women lacked the experience, the capacity and the skills to trade large amounts of cash-crops and that “they were already too busy.”

From the women’s perspective, the benefits of participating in farmers’ organizations were few and far between — especially given the fact that membership was predominantly male.  But women believed they could overcome the time constraints connected to their work burden at home if they were convinced that a new activity would bring additional income for the family.

Home-based literacy classes

P4P Ethiopia, with local partners, set up a range of activities to pave the way for women to progressively access agricultural markets and become more involved in P4P activities. The initiative focused on women married to farmers from whom WFP purchased food.

In the survey, men had said that women could not take part in farmer’s organizations because they were illiterate. So one of the first activities put in place was a literacy programme for women.

“Together with the NGOs Sasakawa and Women in Self-Employment (WISE), we put in place a convenient system for these women, who spend most of their time working at home,” explained Elizabeth Mekonnen, gender focal point for the Ethiopia P4P programme. “Trainers teach people in the community who are already literate, who then in turn teach women how to read and count, working at their homes and at a time that’s convenient for them.”

Women then receive basic business skills training and identify an activity. Most of them choose animal fattening, which can be done from home. They obtain loans through the programme and are able to kick start a business straight away. 

Interviews with a dozen women during the community conversations make it clear that the loan and the business skills work very well. 

Alemitu Yohannes, who grows red beans and maize with her husband, explained how the loan allowed her to buy fertilizers and improved seeds and doubled their production.

But the benefits of this gender initiative are much greater than just increased productivity. 

New women’s cooperatives

“A woman is not counted as a child of the family, she is considered as a gift to be given to her future husband. From the bone she is not treated as equal,” said Ruth Elias during the community conversation under the tree outside Anja Chefa school.

“The mere fact of women saying such things in front of their husbands in joint meetings, or women gathering together to talk about these issues is already a big change,” says Aberash Tsehay from Sasakawa, who is handling the organization of the literacy and business skills training in the programme. 

One of the strengths of the initiative is that community dialogue was unhurried, and took place over the course of a year, involving a wide range of community members, including traditional leaders and farmers. Men and women were equally consulted during the initial phase in order to get a good picture of what would be acceptable to all.

So far, thanks to this initiative, more than 1,000 women joined four newly created women’s cooperatives. These cooperatives have delivered some 110 metric tons of maize and 18 metric tons of beans to WFP.  Weather conditions permitting, women farmers are confident that they can boost production even further.  And with additional incomes and the appropriate literacy training, women farmers have invested resources into renting land, purchasing oxen and other agricultural inputs to ensure productivity gains in the future.