G8 Summit Spotlight: Investing in Women Farmers Pays Off

Article Date

10 June 2013

Article Author

By Gillian Gaynair

Media Contact

Anne McPherson

Vice President, Global Communications email [email protected]

The International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) has launched a new research project to test whether reshaping the business model of independent agricultural entrepreneurs – known as agro-dealers – in Western Kenya to better respond to the needs of women farmers and promote equality within farming households could ultimately help alleviate hunger among families.

The two-year effort, “Innovations in Gender Equality to Promote Household Food Security (IGE),” is funded by the United States Agency for International Development and is being carried out in partnership with Kenya’s Agricultural Market Development Trust (AGMARK). AGMARK is a Nairobi-based nonprofit that specializes in providing technical support and training to agro-dealers. Its overarching goal is to improve farmers’ access to and knowledge of various agricultural resources in Kenya as well as in Eastern and Southern Africa.

The IGE project is a one-of-a-kind undertaking that challenges traditional approaches to improving women farmers’ control over their earnings and their access to agricultural technology and resources. Instead of narrowly focusing on  women farmers – as has been the norm – ICRW’s latest research includes men: spouses, agro-dealers – who sell farm “inputs,” such as fertilizer, veterinary services and crop pest management – and members of Farmer Input Savings and Loan (FISL) groups, which pool members’ financial resources to buy farming necessities as well as to make small loans. Both men and women work as agro-dealers and belong to FISL groups.

The endeavor is taking place in two counties in Western Kenya, and is a pilot project of the Obama administration’s Feed the Future initiative to increase U.S. investment in agricultural development. Most innovative about the ICRW effort is the focus on husbands of women farmers and on improving decision-making between couples.  ICRW and AGMARK have already trained community members to reach out to farming households and help spur conversations about farming goals and decisions.

“We hope that we can prove that farmers who save for farm inputs and have an appreciation of gender dynamics, will increase their production and productivity, strengthen couples’ decision-making abilities and create more harmony at home and in their community,” said Bell Okello, who leads the IGE project and is the gender, agricultural and rural development specialist for ICRW’s East Africa Regional Office in Nairobi.

“We also believe that agro-dealers with a better understanding of gender dynamics will be best placed to serve women and men farmers by tailoring services and products that meet their specific needs.”

Worldwide, the face of agriculture is often female. However, despite their central role, women farmers face a number of constraints stemming from gender inequality, including limited access to farming-related technology, information, credit, and training services. These missed opportunities adversely affect women’s productivity, making food less readily available and hunger harder to keep at bay.

The landscape is no different in Kenya. Research shows that if Kenyan women farmers had more equitable access to seeds, fertilizer and equipment, household agricultural productivity could increase by 10 to 20 percent. With equal access to farming resources and education as men, women could also improve by 22 percent their yields in maize, beans and cowpeas, the main food staples in Kenya.

Experts say that creating more equitable household dynamics also is critical to improving food production and alleviating hunger. Even if women farmers’ access to resources improves, “How do she and her spouse negotiate what seeds to buy, what crops to grow and how to use the earnings from their yields?” said Aslihan Kes, an economist and gender specialist at ICRW. “Decision-making in the household realm is excluded in most interventions that focus on women farmers. We hope to show that if a woman benefits, her husband benefits too, and vice-versa.”

Meanwhile, in Western Kenya there are some 3,000 agro-dealers – independent entrepreneurs who sell certified improved seeds and fertilizers, among other inputs and service items. (Only 30 percent of the 90 new agro-dealerships in the area are owned or fully managed by women.) Many also offer trainings to farmers, link them to credit and markets and mobilize them to establish FISL groups.

“Our recent research in Western Kenya shows that women farmers interact closely with agro-dealers – more so than men – and also make up the majority of FISL members,” Okello said. “But the services that agro-dealers offer largely do not take into account women’s needs.

With that, IGE aims to strengthen existing ties between agro-dealers and farmers by capitalizing on their business relationship with FISL groups. It also strives to improve the relationship between agro-dealers and other agricultural service providers, such as research organizations and nongovernmental organizations. Researchers suggest that doing so will, in part, yield more opportunities and benefits for women farmers.

Specifically, the project envisions a training and education model that:

  • Strengthens agro-dealers’ skills in supporting FISLs and promoting gender equality
  • Increases farmers’ purchase of seeds and other necessities by catalyzing savings through FISLs. This would eliminate the cash constraint that prevents many women farmers from buying and using improved farming resources
  • Works with FISL members and their spouses to improve household communication and cooperation around agricultural decision-making and activities. 

“We believe that better functioning FISL groups will improve farmers’ ability to purchase fertilizers, equipment and other necessities,” Okello said. “In turn, farmers’ production and household food security has the potential to be enhanced as well as agro-dealers’ sales, profits and sustainability.”

ICRW researchers also predict that a more integrated, equitable approach to increasing household agricultural productivity is likely to empower women farmers and foster more leadership among them. That, according to Okello, is perhaps the most significant challenge of the IGE project.

“While encouraging farmers to save through FISLs is fairly achievable,” he said, “transforming the mindset within farming households to be more egalitarian takes time and is likely to be met with resistance.”

Related publications:

Agrodealerships in Western Kenya: How Promising for Agricultural Development and Women Farmers?

Cultivating Women’s Participation: Strategies for Gender-Responsive Agriculture Programming

Invisible Market: Energy and Agricultural Technologies for Women’s Economic Advancement

Next week we look at how agricultural practitioners in Tanzania are gaining deeper understanding of gender norms that influence production, and how to address gender issues to improve farmer’s lives. Look for this article on Monday, June 17, 2013.