• Tianning He

Engaging Women Farmers - The Helicopter Story

Too often, events focus on success stories from actors along agri value chains. On 31 May 2021, Grow Asia partnered with WOMAG to co-run a session in our “Confessional” series titled “Re-imagining How We Engage Women Upstream” . These “Confessionals” are closed-door, by invitation-only events run under Chatham House Rules to encourage open dialogue on the key opportunities, challenges, successes and – critically – failures organizations in the agriculture sector face in creating more sustainable and inclusive value chains. During this session we focused on upstream challenges value chain actors face in engaging women farmers, aggregators and retailers in Southeast Asia - particularly in light of the ongoing and changing pandemic.


The article below are the afterthoughts of Tianning He (WOMAG Content Creation Manager and Thought For Food Ambassador) following the session.



“What we want is motorcycles, but you keep sending helicopters.”


I heard an African woman farmer said this in a UN Food System Dialogue.


When I shared this story at the WOMAG x Grow Asia “Confessional” on 31 May 2021, it immediately struck a chord with many participants.. I guess it’s because wherever we are, so often, projects with the best intention tend to misunderstand the real needs of people, and neglect the nuances in the design and delivery of the solutions.


The same case applies when we engage women in agriculture - the ones doing the actual farm work. Melinda Gates mentioned in her book The Moment of Lift that organizations offer frequent training through text messages and radio programs. However, if they fail to understand that in many households it’s the husbands that carry the cell phones and control the dial, their projects that aim to train women farmers will be to no avail.


With this in mind, how can we better use our resources to empower women farmers? Here’re a few thoughts following the “Confessional”.


Don’t innovate for the sake of innovation


When we think of addressing a challenge, sometimes our default mindset is that we need to create something new. But new doesn’t mean effective. For example, many agritech companies are racing to develop new apps to help smallholder farmers access information and markets. However, a Grow Asia study found that while over 90% of the smallholder farmers interviewed have used a phone to call a transaction party, less than 1% have ever downloaded a farmer service app. What a wake-up call!


Similarly, empowering women farmers might not mean investing in a new set of training courses, developing a new platform, or launching a new technology. We should start by following the women farmers’ journey – how do they spend their day? How do they access information? What technologies are available to them and how do they interact with them? What’s the time, place, and scenario that we can offer our help?


Most often, the best innovation comes from putting down our ego and listening deeply.


Work with local partners


Understanding the cultural and social nuances in a challenge requires humility, curiosity, and open mindedness. It also stresses the importance of working with people from local communities when we try to help. During the Confessional, several participants said local partnerships help deliver impact that is time and location relevant in their work supporting women farmers during this pandemic.


Maybe it’s worth admitting that sometimes, the best solutions have already been developed by our local partners, and we are the most useful when we let them take the lead and help them scale up the impact.


Gather the husbands


To empower women farmers and challenge the male dominant culture in some rural communities, we cannot forget the husbands. Several people mentioned at the Confessional that during the pandemic, more men are sharing unpaid care work with their wives, and in some cooperatives, women are the decision makers. How refreshing to hear this!


Historically, success in combating discrimination and bringing in the outsiders has always had the support from insider activists. Identifying the men that are willing to reform with their wives and working with these families to improve their farm productivity may set inspiring examples for the rest of the community to follow suit.


Empowering women farmers has become one important area of work for companies and NGOs when they set strategies to help farmers increase productivity. But there are many nuances to understand to make sure the resources we put in generate impact for the beneficiaries.


Let’s not send fancy helicopters if they can’t deliver what is needed. Let’s listen deeply to those we want to empower with curiosity and let them lead us in the design and delivery of solutions.


This article was originally posted on the WOMAG Insights page. If you would like to read a summary of a "Confessional" Grow Asia ran previously with the Springfield Centre, click here.

Tianning He is a sustainability communications professional with more than eight years’ experience supporting and advising companies in highly regulated industries – agriculture, healthcare and oil and gas – tell their stories, engage stakeholders, and shape public perceptions on important topics such as food security, food safety, sustainable agricultural production.


A new mom, Tianning is passionate about projects and conversations that drive social impact and contribute to a better world for future generations.

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