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Closing Gender Gaps in Agriculture, Helping Women Farmers into Feasible Sustainability.


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In addition to preserving the earth’s natural resources, sustainable agriculture benefits the environment through helping to maintain soil quality, reducing erosion, and preserving water. However, and most importantly, owing to the fact that the earth’s population is rapidly growing and with such an expansion comes along with increased need for more resources, without support to sustainable agricultural production the world is at a significant threat.

Imagine statistics that indicate that the global population is going to reach 9 billion people by 2050. Today, more than 1 billion people of the world depend on farming for their income and livelihood. This implies that although the world is doing much with increasing food production, the earth’s population has become a growing concern for the possibilities of producing that much food with the limited resources available.

In order to maintain stable livelihood and sustainable lifestyle, countries, especially of the developing world together with agriculturalists must focus on certain criteria in order to meet the sustainability practices and needs. This calls for creating a healthy environment, while ensuring economic profitability in addition to maintaining social and economic support and equity for every member of the food system to be able to manage a sustainable lifestyle. Such members of the food system and supply chain include mainly the smallholder farmers.

Smallholder farmers are the main food producers in development countries. Increased smallholder agricultural production means more food enters the market place and on family tables, leading to lower food prices and better diets. In Africa alone, there are an estimated 33 million smallholder farms, and their farmers that live on them contribute to 70% of Africa’s food supply.

STARS Rwanda Gender Focus

“Like in all other African countries, Rwandan women perform most of the activities in agriculture production ranging from farming, winnowing, drying and marketing, however sometimes they do as voluntary work and this brings inequality together with all its limitations,” says Shyaka Francis, STARS value chain development advisor, a five-year (2017-2021) project in partnership with Mastercard Foundation.

ICCO, in collaboration with MarterCard Foundation have worked with endless effort to promote female inclusion. The theory of change is the backbone of this development program that STARS designed to drive forth its interventions tailored to improving the capacity of women smallholders and participation in the food systems and value chain.

Empowering women smallholder farmers to grow more and better crops, better food and increased incomes is a prerequisite. While the country’s agriculture accounts for a third of the national GDP and yet more than 70% of Rwandan women are engaged in agriculture, it is disappointing that these women don’t have access to land, production inputs, finance or markets as compared to men.

As a result women smallholder farmers are mostly relegated to subsistence farming. While their families rely on their small harvest as the main source of food and nutrition, the lack of quality agriculture inputs, finance, and technology reduces the yield and diversity of their crops. This ultimately impacts the food and nutrition security plus incomes of their families.

Women obstacle

During the first year of implementation in 2017, STARS took to a feasibility study to examine situation in which women were operating and realized that there were various constraints to women inclusion in various value chains. With a serious focus on farmers and producer organizations, a range of gender differences in access to finance, farm inputs, knowledge and skill, service, market as well as control over assets especially land

Women smallholder farmers have been known face a serious challenge of poor incomes rallied with too much agricultural responsibility and work alongside unpaid domestic labour. Others include:

  • Poor literacy, especially lack of financial and digital skills
  • Limited time, capacity and resources to travel to access training, finance, and market etc.
  • Inadequate access to, and ownership of land for agricultural production and collateral
  • Less access to information, markets and big buyers as compared to men
  • Low access to finance and required collateral
  • Low representation of women in key decision-making bodies within producer organizations like cooperatives and other local institutions, in addition to low women participation in meetings
  • Unnecessary male domination and control over women (e.g. decision on women’s businesses, use of income, in addition to limited decision making power at household or community level;

STARS Power of change

Almost all of the mentioned barriers mentioned earlier have been known to be interrelated and are always reinforcing. One barrier contributes to the strength of impact of another and vice versa. Take for example an illiterate woman whose is cause of ignorance are limited resources to cater for education or training.

The ICCO’s STARS program is an ideology of change that came at a time when it was greatly needed and used a variety of approaches to address these constraints.

STARS program has supported producer organizations in Rwanda to include more women in their leadership and by so doing, stimulated women capacities in agriculture where many of them have become leaders in their homes, their farms, and their communities. This has resulted into women building an understanding of self esteem and confidence. Through the program, women farmers have come to value their positions and role in the value chain activities. Women farmers are leaders in dialogues of conflicts resolutions on agricultural resources which have greatly reduced among households. Women representatives in POs leadership positions increased from 20% to between 30 – 40%. In addition, women have less fear to request loans for agricultural activities and are supported by their husbands.

What They Say!

A good example is one of the cooperatives in Nyagatare district of the Eastern province of Rwanda called COPRIMU cooperative. Before the cooperative started working with the STARS program in 2017, it had governance issues that were holding them back and demoralizing its members. Fortune Murangoyire, the manager of the cooperative explained. “We would transact money without documentation and staff would take leave without filling any forms. Unable to access money when needed inputs, members always felt very disappointed and lost confidence in the leadership”.

Consolee, is a member of COPRIMU, she used to farm on just 18 acres of land, barely producing enough to feed her family, let alone selling. They were farming without plan and direction. One would be planting, another weeding, and someone else would be applying pesticide, you can imagine the chaos across the marshland,” Consolee says.

Consolee, is a member of COPRIMU

She was not the only COPRIMU member for whom farming was not rewarding. The production of the cooperative stood at 280 tons on 140 ha in 2017. This translated to just two tons per hectare, despite the amount of seed they sunk into the marshland during planting. “We used to plant 8 kg on 12 acres and even complained that it was little”, Consolee laughs.

The establishment of gender committees by STARS at each producer organization helped to resolve conflicts and empower its women members like Consolee to participate more actively in the affairs of their cooperatives, take charge of their production and understand their right to earn and manage the money they got paid for their rice yield. And it has also been a great opportunity for women to improve their self-confidence, autonomy, risk-taking abilities and to become role models for their colleagues.

“Women started taking leadership roles, vying for positions alongside men in the governance committee”, COPRIMU manager recounted.

“I was not left behind. I vied for and was elected leader of Kundumuceli group, in charge of almost 140 farmers,” Consolee says proudly.

The shift in governance revived the members’ trust for the leadership of the cooperative. Whereas farmers were accustomed to selling off their produce to the highest bidder, they now pooled their harvest together and allowed the cooperative to negotiate off-taker contracts with a processor; Nyagatare rice. STARS program had orchestrated the linkage with the buyer.

The changes brought in by the gender committee were also seen in many other cooperatives. Women members from KABIYAKI cooperative in Kamonyi District, Southern province, expressed their full enjoyment of the leadership of their Cooperative chairperson who is a woman and they say that “When we see our fellow woman colleague governing a big cooperative, poor mindset of inferiority complex and fear to take on big responsibility fades off and we do not hesitate to freely express our ideas (Focus group discussion, Lessons learned from the STARS, interventions for female smallholder farmers in Rwanda report, 2021).

“The capacity building support from STARS made me feel as a powerful woman with more confidence when leading meeting with our cooperative members, and I have realized that my colleagues women were awaken especially when it comes to express their ideas or to give their candidature for different leadership positions within cooperative,” KABIYAKI president states.

KABIYAKI president

Beyond direct STARS positive impact to cooperative members, respondents from IMPABARUTA cooperative revealed to have used knowledge from the training on gender to handle family gender-based violence. This cooperative developed a great initiative to invite those couples experiencing household conflict in order to educate them about family conflict prevention and to show them the importance of letting their wives participate in cooperative activities for the best of the household’s benefits including children and husbands. This best practice worked well, and many couples were reunified and now live in family harmony.

One female farmer explains that, “There is asignificant difference before the program and now. Actually, relationships between men and women are improved; they discuss and decide together about household’s matters. Now we observe that the cases of gender-based violence have decreased even among our colleagues’ households”

About STAR-ICCO Project

The STARS Rwanda project, through its market system development approach, focuses on improving access to finance and markets for more than 200,000 smallholder farmers in Rwanda. Other areas of the project’s operation include Senegal and Boukina Faso and Ethiopea. The project targets and plans to have an overall impact on the lives of more than 1 million people and their families. STARS improves value chain and gives smallholders better access to financial instruments, skills, inputs, and market


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