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How to make agribusiness work for women

farmer carrying banana

Farmer carrying a bucnh of banana. Photo courtesy.

The African Green Revolution Forum 2018 has just ended in Kigali Rwanda. And befitting of the progress the country has made in gender equality and women’s empowerment – a day before the event the country held parliamentary elections and the proportion of women elected to parliament rose from 64 per cent – a group of organizations came together to put a spotlight on women in agribusiness.

At the meeting, I told the story of three women, Charity, Loise and Jane. In 2012, they founded Exotic EPZ Limited a company which processes macadamia nuts for export. When they decided to go into business together, nobody took them seriously. The banks said that as women with no property or land for collateral, they were too big a risk for a loan. The farmers they contacted were skeptical about women surviving in international trade, a business where “even men had failed”. But they were determined. They pulled together their savings, borrowed from friends and family. They started with 7.5 tonnes of shelled nuts each month.

They have now doubled that capacity and currently employ over 100 people, most of them women, and have created a market for thousands of smallholder macadamia farmers.

The story of Charity, Loise and Jane is about the huge opportunity that women agribusinesses present, but it is also a story of the challenges and gender barriers that women still face. Across the continent, 68 per cent of economically active women are in the agricultural sector.

The continent has the largest proportion of women entrepreneurs. However, no country in Africa has achieved parity in business ownership. Ghana has the highest proportion at 46.4 per cent of total businesses owned by women, followed by Uganda at 33.8 per cent and Botswana at 24.5 per cent.

And women still face numerous challenges in growing their agribusinesses. Despite expansion of microfinance organizations that are now reaching millions of women, research shows that the financing gap for women-owned small and medium enterprises is about $20 billion.

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Women are still less likely to have bank accounts. In Zambia for example, only 26 per cent of women farmers have a bank account, compared to 49 per cent of men. And even when women apply for loans, they are less likely to be successful than men. SCORE, a nonprofit association dedicated to helping small businesses get off the ground, grow and achieve their goals through education and mentorship released a study on women-owned businesses that showed that while 59 per cent of businesses owned by women would like financing, only 25 per cent sought the finance. And of those 25 per cent, only 31 per cent were successful. What are the actions that we can take to grow women businesses.

First, we need to recognize that financial inclusion interventions are not gender neutral and the uptake and usage gaps would be reduced if products and services suited women’s needs and priorities. A lot of effort has been put into trying to make women bankable, training them, organizing them into groups among other interventions.

We need a paradigm shift. We now need to make financial institutions women- able. Financial institutions usually have products that have population-wide benefits (aimed at lifting all boats). And women have benefited from these.

But faced with gender barriers, there is need for innovations that meet the specific needs and priorities of women. Second, recognizing the multiple needs of women-owned businesses beyond financial inclusion and bundling services that they need.

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Combining financial services, skills such as financial literacy, linking to business support services and mentoring can help women-owned business thrive and grow. Research that we have been funding at the United States International University in Kenya has shown that when you only offer skills training to business owners, the likelihood that their businesses will be successful is 57 per cent. This increases to 93 per cent when you combine training, mentoring and business support services.

Third, integrating women in national and global supply chains, integrating them as suppliers of raw materials, as aggregators and as processors is key to enabling women to thrive. In Kenya and Uganda for example, over 20,000 women smallholder farmers are supplying beans to a company that is doing industrial precooking of beans.

RELATED ARTICLE: Kenya women farmers neglected despite driving agriculture

Jemimah Njuki, senior programme specialist, Canada’s International Development Research.

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