• Jenny Costelloe Director, Country Partnerships

Women in Agriculture: A business opportunity

SINGAPORE - International Women’s Day 2016 takes place on 8 March and this year’s theme is “Pledge for Parity”.

The theme reminds me of an observation that I have about much of the work that I see in agriculture value chains: the disparity between men and women and the dearth of solutions to tackle the problem.

A significant gap exists between men and women, and it is difficult to identify the best approach. Gender equity is a multifaceted and complex issue, driven by cultural norms, customs and practices, but one which – if addressed – could present huge benefits to business, societies and economies.

Let’s look at the statistics:

  • Women work two-thirds of the world’s working hours. Yet they earn 10 percent of the world’s income (CARE International)

  • The FAO estimates there are currently 1.1 billion women operating across the agricultural sector. However, this is difficult to quantify because their role in farming is often informal and part of a wider range of household duties. In south Asia, 70% of ‘working women’ work in agriculture

  • The FAO estimates, if women had equal access to education, seeds, agriculture training, mechanization and water, they could produce 20-30% more food. This is enough to raise 150 million people out of hunger (watch this animation which summarizes this)

  • Further, when women are empowered (that is, have choices and access to the same opportunities as men) more children go to school, farm yields increase, incomes increase and family health improves.

  • Finally, the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report shows a correlation between countries with a reduced gender gap and increased economic performance.

So what does this mean? Firstly, for me personally, it is depressing that widespread inequality exists, despite the fact that it clearly hampers economic and societal progress. However, more broadly, I think these numbers represent a huge opportunity for businesses. Many food and agricultural companies are currently exploring responsible ways to source more food, demonstrating a contribution to societal and economic development. Therefore, doesn’t it make sense to purposefully integrate women into business models and value chains? The statistics suggest that inclusion of women in agriculture - with equal opportunities and access to credit, land, training and technology - would result in more food, higher yields and greater economic progress. Everyone would benefit.

Despite this obvious opportunity, there are few organizations with business models or strategies more inclusive of women. (The development sector is well ahead on this front, with many NGOs focusing on women’s empowerment and inclusive models to contribute to poverty alleviation). So far, I’ve only observed businesses setting up women’s empowerment “projects” as philanthropic or community activities. For example, Unilever’s Project Shakti in India, which engages and empowers women as sales agents, or the Grameen Bank, which provides microfinance to women at preferential rates. However, very few are mainstreaming women into their operations. Rather than supporting a women’s charity or an empowerment project, why aren’t more food and agriculture businesses deliberately investing in the procurement from women-owned businesses? Or, at least ensuring farmer training is adapted to include women (it can be difficult for women to break down the mobility, or cultural, barriers that prevent them from sitting alongside men in training)? Another strategy could be to provide more women with access to credit options. Women are considered to be more reliable with loan repayments, and according to CARE International, when one woman is lifted out of poverty she lifts four others with her. These are well-known statistics, and all good reasons for more inclusive business practices. However, the real deal- clincher for me is the FAO’s findings on increased yields and, if women in agriculture have equal opportunities, the ability to feed millions of hungry people.

So this International Women’s Day, I urge anyone working in the food and agriculture sector, whether you’re male or female, to ask yourself: Are you really are doing the best you can to include women in your supply chains?

By empowering women in agriculture and creating gender-friendly practices, your business stands to benefit from increased productivity, higher incomes and overall more people will be fed.

I look forward to discussing this further at the Women in Agriculture session at the Responsible Business Forum in Jakarta.

Jenny Costelloe Director, Country Partnerships, Grow Asia jenny@growasia.org

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