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Strengthening women hibiscus farmers in Sudan

Facilitation and participation are key in Practical Action’s work in food and agriculture. Through facilitation, our aim is to strengthen community skills, knowledge, confidence and collaboration. An example of this kind of participatory facilitation is in our work in Sudan which is helping to empower marginalised women hibiscus producers. These small rural producers often have no choice but to sell at low prices and buy inputs and services at relatively high prices, with little choice over their options.

Hibiscus is a cash crop popular that thrives in the sub-Saharan region, it is traditionally consumed as karkadeh, a sweet flavoured drink popular during Ramadan. It is also a useful ingredient used in jams, jelly, ice creams and flavourings and has medicinal properties used to lower blood pressure, aid digestion and treat colds. It is drought-resistant and requires little inputs. Hibiscus is an important cash crop for approximately 240,000 farmers and is growing in demand due to the lack of chemicals needed to grow it in Sudan. This crop has been beneficial in creating an income for women farmers.  It is exported to Europe to use in herbal teas and exports were 23,000 tons in 2001, worth US $ 20 million.  These earnings are, however, threatened by competition from China and also the persistent difficulties in meeting export quality standards.

Practical Action in Sudan has worked with hibiscus farmers using participatory market systems development. Initially farm plots were used to demonstrate better varieties and harvesting techniques.  After a participatory mapping exercise (a tool used to help producers and other actors better understand blockages and opportunities in their livelihoods) it became clear that a major problem for hibiscus farmers were poor relationships and communications with other actors in the marketplace such as suppliers and traders.  In order to make the market chain more beneficial for poor farmers, workshops and meetings were used to facilitate communication between farmers, traders, government extension agents, suppliers and village development committees spanning 25 villages in North Darfur.  This stimulated farmers and traders to collaborate in implementing standards for higher value produce that benefitted both farmers and traders. This technique is one way Practical Action works as a facilitator to strengthen farmers’ understanding of the market and build their confidence and capabilities.

In addition, Village Development Committees (VDCs) instigated a rural marketing network comprising of farmers from different villages in Khartoum and Practical Action organised a national workshop that led to the formation of a Hibiscus Forum involving exporters, input suppliers and government officials concerned with promoting the sub-sector.

In 2006 Practical Action secured a further project grant from Comic Relief to step up the development of this participatory approach. By 2010 this project had benefitted 40,000 marginalized, mostly women, farmers in existing hibiscus growing areas. Practical Action worked with Women’s Development Associations and trained over 104 local extension agents in hibiscus seeds production and extension services in hibiscus farming. As a result of the project 33,000 plus farmers are better connected with other market actors, have seen their incomes rise and it has been observed that women’s social status has also increased.

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