It is recognised that agriculture is an engine for growth and poverty reduction – especially in rural Africa where it is considered the main occupation of the poor. However, in order to ensure that it delivers on this promise, policies and programmes need to be put in place to ensure that farming practices – and the agriculture sector as a whole – become sustainable. Addressing the gender gap is a key step, especially in ensuring inclusivity of women at all levels of agricultural value chains.

Women in Africa are key contributors to economic growth and global food security, but they still face many challenges. Aggregate data shows that women comprise about [1]43% of the agricultural labour force globally and account for [2]60% to 80% of smallholder farmers in the developing world. However, rural women often manage complex households and pursue multiple livelihood strategies for their families and communities which are not seen as economically active, but essential to the overall wellbeing of rural households. Studies by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) show that throughout the world, women farmers control less land and make far less use of improved technologies and inputs such as fertiliser. They tend to have less access to credit and insurance and are less likely to receive extension services, which are the main source of information on new technologies in the developing world. Research has shown that when women are given equal access to productive resources, their productivity goes up from 20% to 30%.

The FoodTrade ESA programme recognises this gender inequality in agriculture and is implementing a five year trade enhancement project with women at the core of its programming. The programme implements activities that ensure women are continually and actively engaged, and is working closely with grantees to mainstream gender into their activities. The programme also seeks to promote leadership positions for women through the project it supports. Through these projects, women have been trained and have become lead farmers playing a key role in reaching out to their communities. Such deliberate activities, together with the actions of other stakeholders promoting gender mainstreaming in agriculture, are helping to shift the image of women from low level producers at the farm level to positions of leadership and ownership in agricultural value chains.

Zinduka Women’s Group in Tanzania and Cheptarit Star Women’s Group in Kenya, both beneficiaries of the FoodTrade ESA programme, provide a good case study of the benefits of involving women at all levels of agricultural value chains. Cheptarit Star Women’s Group was formed in 2006 by a group of 20 female farmers in Nandi County who sought independence and financial freedom. These women farmed as a collective and sold their produce in local stores. In 2013, they linked up with the East African Grain Council, who provided capacity building for aggregation and subsequently gave the group machinery including weighing machines, moisture meters and tarpaulins, and also provided them with training on how to use them.

According to Josephine Bungei from Cheptarit Star Women’s Group, the group has won the trust of local farmers as they are able to pay them in a timely fashion, sometimes faster than the Government’s National Cereal Board. In 2015, the FoodTrade ESA grantee Kilimo Trust helped them grow their business exponentially by including them in their consortiums. The group is now able to trade across regional borders. In March 2016, the group was facilitated by Kilimo Trust to meet another FoodTrade ESA grantee, Kaderes Peasants Development PLC, enabling them to purchase beans from Tanzania. As a result of their successes, most of the women are now able to send their children to university.

Another gender mainstreaming success story is Shalem Investments Ltd.; 67.7% of the beneficiaries supported by the company are women, many of whom are now formally participating in the economy by owning bank accounts for the first time; getting banked has been documented as a key step to achieving financial freedom. They now also have access to bank loans which will enable them to scale up their operations.

The male and female farmers supported by Shalem Investments through the FoodTrade ESA grant now have access to extensive farming knowledge and training (e.g. on pesticides, fertilisers, weather control) which they have been able to apply on their own farms. Mechanisation has also made planting and selling far easier: a mobile drying machine provided under the project has helped improve post-harvest handling, and the traditional beating of sorghum is now mechanised, allowing farmers to produce more for themselves and their families.  Additional benefits include access to education for their families, ensuring that future generations have a better chance to break out of the poverty cycle. FoodTrade ESA is making a conscious effort to continue championing gender equality in agriculture.