The ‘Women in Agriculture: Women-led Resilience Strategies’ session surveyed the many obstacles faced by women in agriculture, particularly as a result of the recent COVID-19 pandemic. As the chair, Åslaug Marie Haga, Associate Vice-President, IFAD, reminded us, “crises don’t affect everyone equally”. As women play an indispensable role in food systems (80% of food in Sub Saharan Africa is produced by women) there is a vital need to empower women to address these challenges and transform agricultural value chains to promote equity, resilience, sustainability - to “build back better” in the wake of the pandemic.
Even before COVID-19, women producers faced constrained access to social protection, education, credit and markets compared with men, making them much more vulnerable to the socio-economic impacts of the disease. The panellists spoke of gender-specific obstacles, particularly the increased caretaking duties due to school closures, and Cesarie Kantarama, President of Ingabo Syndicate of the Rwandan Farmers' Union, described suspension of microfinance loans, loss of female financial independence, leading to increased dependency on male family members and increased levels of domestic violence. Overall the picture is of the erosion of women farmers’ social capital, leading to reduced productivity and increased cost of production thus triggering higher food prices, affecting access for vulnerable populations and leading to malnutrition.
Yet there were many opportunities identified to develop bottom-up solutions led by and for women producers, who are best placed to understand their own strengths and needs, particularly initiatives embracing digital technology. Maya Stewart, who runs Lenzie Mills milling company in Malawi, spoke of rapidly transitioning her business model to a digital based entity, taking orders through Whatsapp, moving to mobile payments, and shifting more than 80 per cent of transactions to a door-to-door service.
“The pandemic has been a good opportunity to embrace innovation, helping our business survive in uncertain times. The challenge is that most of our suppliers are women in rural areas who do not have smart phones, so we now include digital literacy in our training for farmers. As a woman agripreneur, working from home and juggling home schooling my children with making sure the business stays afloat, I can say it hasn’t been easy but I am grateful that technology has been one of our saving graces.”
Dr Wanjiru Kamau-Rutenberg, Director at AWARD, Kenya, speaking from an agricultural research perspective about the need to grow more resilient and gender-responsive institutions, attested to the additional burden on women in the home which has been exposed as a result of COVID-19. She also spoke of digital conferencing is allowing women scientists to participate in decision making.
“In the past there has been the assumption that what happens in the private sphere is not relevant to the public. Male scientists are now understanding for the first time the importance of care work and its unpaid nature, which is forcing institutions to make better accommodation for all. We are realizing that the traditionally “female” roles of care and community are part of building resilience and men are now invited to participate more fully in this.”
Many areas of further resilience-building were identified, including diversification, better storage solutions, and an emergency recovery fund to help women farmers bounce back. Financial inclusion was identified as vital as lending institutions see agriculture as high risk and women need better training in creating bankable business proposals. Marygoretti Gachagua, Program Officer Partnerships and Special Programs, EAFF, recommended, “further streamlining and digitizing our processes to stand the test of time – positioning our farmers to be in contractual agreements with processors and storage companies to leverage aggregation models, linking them directly to the market. We also need to create business plans that we own and believe in as women.”