We have to understand the barriers women farmers face to overcome gender imbalance in agribusiness
Rwanda has been in the press in recent years rightly praised for its progress in gender equality, as demonstrated in its parliament in which female MPs outnumber their elected male counterparts, while the Cabinet achieved a 50/50 gender balance. And while many women continue to play a full role in politics, beyond the headlines there is still a lot of work to be done, especially in agribusiness, writes Liza Imbonabake of Challenges Rwanda.
Agribusiness includes all activities within the agricultural food and natural resource industry that are involved in the production of food and fibre. Agribusiness examines farming problems in a more comprehensive manner through the development of updated agriculture methods, including production, processing and distribution. It’s an area in which Challenges has a particular focus, not just in Rwanda but also in our CROPS project, as well as in Zambia, Ghana and elsewhere.
According to a UN Women study of East Africa, women only make up 24% of those working in agribusiness, yet comprise 79% of the agriculture labour workforce.
And while this shocking statistic covers the East African region in general, it is still a wake-up call for Rwanda, which is already recognized as a leading nation in gender equality (it scored sixth out of 144 countries in the WEF Report on the Global Gender Gap 2018). Specifically, it highlights the need for additional support for female farmers in agribusiness.
Women in Rwanda, as well as in other developing countries, face challenges such as lack of land, lack of corporate tools, inadequate technology, poor extension support and little access to markets, thus hindering their role in agriculture productivity.
And while the proportion of women involved in agribusiness in Rwanda is better than the overall figured for East Africa, (a survey conducted by the Rwanda Gender Monitoring office shows that the total population of Rwandan engaged in agricultural activities is 67.6%, of which 79% are females and 54.4% are males), the gender inequalities remain persistent in the selling of high-yield agriculture. Males continue to be the primary person involved with selling agricultural produce/yield for small-scale and large-scale crops, leaving women restricted to subsistence farming (Gender Monitoring Office, 2017).
There are a number of reasons for this. Access to land continues to be one of the main hindrances affecting most women involved in agriculture. With most land owned by males (often husbands), women land-owners are something of a rarity. Only about 1% of Rwandan land is owned by women, and this is mostly comprised of small plots (relative to male land-owners!) that all too often are affected by infertile soil. This leads most women to engage solely in subsistence farming, rather than looking to commercial options.
Another challenge faced by women in agriculture is access to finance. Most women in rural areas involved in agriculture have less experience in borrowing from an institution, which when combined with a lack of awareness and education, and a fear of obtaining small loans, can prove to be a substantial barrier to funding. Quite simply, without assistance and support, women farmers find it particularly difficult to access the necessary finance to grow their businesses.
Various government initiatives, however, have been put in place to help Rwandan women and young people access finance (Challenges has recently implanted a similar programme). These have resulted in an increase of women accessing formal finance from 36% in 2012 to 63% in 2016. While this increase is to be applauded, it is still low compared to men whose access increased from 51% in 2012 to 74% in 2016.
Another limitation hindering women in agribusiness is a lack of focus on new practices and techniques in farming or commerce. For example, it takes three years for a coffee tree to bear fruit, following which coffee farmers will harvest their crops annually from March-May, perhaps reaping 800–1200 kg of coffee cherries per hectare. Effective practices such as reduced land fragmentation, increased use of both organic and inorganic fertilizer, and mulching are all utilised to boost yields. But most agricultural improvements focus on large-scale commercial farming, with limited research conducted on the techniques employed on smaller farms, which are often owned by women.
The lack of market opportunities is another issue affecting female farmers in Rwanda, with the lack of wider market research and data adding a further barrier. Women tend to be confined to local markets where prices are generally low. As a product or produce makes its way from the farm to the local market then distribution centres, women tend to lose both control and income (Gurung, 2006). These disadvantages reduce women’s effectiveness as key players in value chains, and reduce their overall market effectiveness. And as the women turn to “experts” for advice or representation within the value chain they lose yet more influence as they’re pushed further away from their product, and so the vicious cycle continues.
Despite the challenges, there are agencies and initiatives seeking to address this imbalance, including Challenges Rwanda’s Coffee Market Building for People and Prosperity project. This far-reaching programme is supporting co-op farmers by delivering business training and working to grow capacity, improve quality and widen market access, something that is already bringing major advantages to female farmers, who are all too often left out of the decision-making process.
Liza Imbonabake is an Associate at Challenges Rwanda.