Women have proven to be a powerful force in the fight against global hunger and poverty, especially in agriculture. Worldwide roughly 1.6 billion women rely on farming for their livelihoods, and female farmers produce more than half of the world’s food. In sub-Saharan Africa alone, women account for 75 percent of all the agricultural producers. Today we observe International Women’s Day, a global celebration and recognition of women’s achievements.
Women farmers face a variety of obstacles, including a lack of access to information technology, agricultural training, financial services, and support networks like co-operatives or trade unions. Without these services, women cannot develop resilience to political, economic, social, or environmental upheaval, and they remain dependent on their male family members.
The good news is that women worldwide are developing and utilizing agricultural innovations to sustainably nourish their families and communities. Today we celebrate 12 innovations that are helping women get access to credit, improve their incomes, feed their families, introduce sustainable crops to markets, and reduce rural poverty:
- Co-ops. Co-operatives, or co-ops, are a type of business characterized by democratic ownership and governance. In the war-torn country of Côte d’Ivoire, Marium Gnire partnered with Slow Foods International to organize a women’s farming cooperative that would provide quality local food for school meals in her village of N’Ganon, increasing both the women’s income and the health of the community.
- Creating Links Between Women Producers and Markets. In Africa’s Western Sahel, the production of shea butter is boosting women’s entry into global markets. Women-run cooperatives across the region are tapping into the global demand for fair trade and organic beauty products by selling the skin-care cream they produce from the shea nut crop to cosmetics firms such as Origins and L’Oréal. These companies in turn pay a fair price for the products and invest in the women’s communities.
- Educating Girls on Family Planning. The United Nations Foundation sponsors Girl Up, an organization that encourages a world where young girls can avoid the pitfalls of too-early marriage and childbearing and can instead go to school, enjoy health and safety, and grow into the next generation of leaders. In the Amhara region of Ethiopia, where half of adolescent girls are married, Girl Up is helping to promote education for young girls. The project offers basic literacy classes, family-planning information, and agricultural training. In delaying motherhood, even for a few years, girls can gain critical years of education, where they often gain knowledge about successful agricultural practices.
- Empowering Young Girls Through Agriculture. When young girls learn valuable agricultural skills, they gain the power to avoid dependence on men for food and financial security. In Rwanda, the Farmers of the Future Initiative helps to empower young girls and other students by integrating school gardens and agricultural training into primary school curriculums. Over 60 percent of students in Rwanda will return to rural areas to farm for a living after graduating instead of going on to secondary school or university. As young girls learn these skills, they become self-sufficient and empowered.
- Extension Services. Extension services are an important way of disseminating agricultural knowledge to farmers, but unfortunately, women have been excluded from many extension programs, whether as service providers or recipients. When women are included in extension programs, they receive an education, raise their agricultural yields, increase their incomes, raise the nutritional status of their household, and contribute to the improvement of their communities. To improve female inclusion in extension programs, the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture’s Sustainable Tree Crops Program created videos that women could watch in their homes or in groups, without disrupting their childcare or fuel-gathering obligations. Since 2006, nearly 1,600 farmers in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana have received cocoa-production training directly through Video Viewing Clubs.
- Female Trade Unions. In developing countries, women are commonly disenfranchised and not offered the same opportunities and rights as men, such as access to credit and land ownership. The Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), a female trade union in India that began in 1992, works with poor, self-employed women by helping them achieve full employment and self reliance. SEWA is a network of cooperatives, self-help groups, and programs that empower women. Small-scale women farmers in India have particularly benefited from this network that links farmers to inputs and markets.
- Increasing Access to Water. In sub-Saharan Africa, improved access to water means the difference between barely scraping by and eating balanced meals, affording education, and owning a home. In Zambia, Veronica Sianchenga, a farmer living in Kabuyu Village, saw improvements in her family’s quality of life when she began irrigating her farm with the “Mosi-o-Tunya” (Pump that Thunders), a pressure pump that she purchased from International Development Enterprises. In many parts of sub-Saharan Africa, the task of gathering water can take up to eight hours of labor per day and usually falls to women. Because of the pump, her children are eating healthier and she is enjoying increased independence.
- Microfinance Credit. Globally, women fall well short of receiving the same financial benefits and opportunities as men. Only 10 percent of the credit services available in sub-Saharan Africa, including small “microfinance” loans, are extended to women. The New York-based nonprofit Women’s World Banking is the only microfinance network focused explicitly on women, providing loans of as little as US$100 to help women start businesses. Microfinance institutions from 27 countries provide the loans to women who in many cases have no other way to access credit.
- Vertical Farming. Over 800 million people globally depend on food grown in cities for their main food source. Considering that women in Africa own only 1 percent of the land, a practice called vertical farming gives these women the opportunity to raise vegetables without having to own land. Female farmers in Kibera, Nairobi’s largest slum, have been practicing vertical farming using seeds provided by the French NGOSolidarites. This innovative technique involves growing crops in dirt sacks, allowing women farmers to grow vegetables in otherwise unproductive urban spaces. More than 1,000 women are growing food in this way, effectively allowing them to be self-sufficient in food production and to increase their household income. Following the launch of this initiative, each household has increased its weekly income by 380 shillings (equivalent to US$4.33).
- Urban Farming. In Kenya, about 20 urban farmers grow fruits and vegetables on a small strip of land in Kibera, an urban slum in Nairobi with nearly 1 million people. These farmers do not formally own this land and farm through an informal arrangement. More than once, they have been forced to stop farming, and they often see their water supply cut. However, the farmers are continuing to come up with innovative ways of raising food-and incomes-on the farm. With the help of the farmers’ advocacy group Urban Harvest, the farmers are not only growing food to eat and sell, but, perhaps surprisingly, becoming a source of seed for rural farmers.
- Women’s Collectives. In many countries, women’s subordinate position in society makes them easy targets for domestic and sexual violence when working in the agricultural sector, which greatly inhibits their ability to work to their full potential. In India, the Tamil Nadu Women’s Collective focuses on advocating for women’s rights and improving food and water security. The collective reaches over 1,500 villages spread across 18 districts in India’s Tamil Nadu state and has helped many women see an increase in crop yields. The collective provides counseling and support for female victims of domestic violence, promotes women’s participation in local government, and helps women strengthen local food systems, through education on natural farming techniques.
- Women-Run Community Seed Banks. Studies have shown that women farmers typically have lower crop yields than their male counterparts. Rural women farmers’ lower productivity compared to male farmers may be due to women lacking access to high-quality seeds and agricultural inputs. The GREEN Foundation has partnered with NGOs including Seed Savers Network and The Development Fund to create community seed banks in India’s Karnataka state. Women run these seed banks, gaining leadership skills and acquiring quality organic seeds that yield profitable crops and their food security and incomes.
Although these innovations inevitably help men as well as women, it is important that policymakers, scientists, farmers’ groups, and the funding and donor communities focus on ensuring that these women harness the power of these innovations so we can create a more equitable and nourished planet.
Worldwatch’s Nourishing the Planet project recently traveled to 25 countries across sub-Saharan Africa, unearthing innovations in agriculture that can help alleviate hunger and poverty while also protecting the environment. These innovations are elaborated in the recently released report State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet.
Photo: Bernard Pollack