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Enabling markets to tackle gender inequality and social exclusion in regenerative agriculture

By Practical Action On 04.03.2024 IWD-2024Blog

Gender and agricultural experts at Practical Action set out a road map to address inequality and social exclusion in rural communities.

We lay out the importance of using planet friendly farming practices, combined with real world examples to show how this approach can empower women and other marginalised groups. We demonstrate how a more equitable rural economy can work in practice. Finally, we call upon other actors in the sector to use our tools and learning to create similar agricultural systems elsewhere.

By: Patience Samhutsa, Unelker Maoga and Menila Kharel.

Contributing Editors: Chris Henderson, John Chettleborough, George Williams

A market systems approach is essential to tackle issues of gender equality, challenge norms and create social inclusion across farming communities and people within value chains they interact with.

But what does that mean? We explain why and how we use it:

  1. Why we use it.
  2. Our approach.
  3. How we enable inclusion.

1. Why we use a market systems approach

One of the primary questions we get asked by other development professionals is:

“Why do you use a market systems approach to support gender transformative change and social inclusion in agriculture?”

We tell them that gender inequality, gender-based discrimination, and social exclusion happen in nearly all aspects of our lives, including markets. This affects men, women, young people, and all groups left out of sustainable agricultural value chains. Exclusion can also cripple the potential of the market too, slow down economic growth, and ultimately hinder social development.

Women and other marginalised groups are often employed in less lucrative parts of the agricultural value chain and have fewer employment rights, poorer terms and working conditions.

There are multiple reasons for this, including cultural norms such as patriarchal land rights and restrictions from travelling far from their home. Other obstacles include:

  • Inadequate financial literacy and access to finance.
  • Low-waged positions due to undervalued work.
  • The burden of caregiving responsibilities.
  • Work hours that do not accommodate women’s domestic role.
  • A lack of confidence required to become entrepreneurs.

This means that women’s contribution to economic change is reduced due to the barriers they face when engaging with agricultural markets.

Women increase income and redeem time by working on a tomato farm in Ghana.

2. What is our approach?

We are committed to addressing gender bias and social exclusion, and the inequalities that lie behind power and access to resources.

To try to foster resilient and inclusive regenerative agriculture, we use a participatory market systems development approach. This includes selecting specific value chains that promote social inclusion. Our process aims to identify particular viable opportunities for growth which can benefit marginalised groups.

For socially excluded groups (especially women and young people) to be recognised as crucial stakeholders, we take the following essential steps:

  1. Identify sustainable and financially rewarding regenerative agricultural value chains where people can integrate in a meaningful way (examples included below).
  2. Recognise the skills and knowledge women and young people already have and empower them to fulfil their potential through their voice, agency, and leadership (see examples below).
  3. Support and facilitate their awareness of, and access to, mentorship and learning.
  4. Increase their access to business development support, including access to farming inputs, finance, and technologies.
  5. Create an environment for marginalised groups to do business by challenging assumptions and the prejudices of others.
  6. Work with men, family members and the larger community to improve household dynamics by encouraging joint decision-making and discouraging gender biases which can achieve long-term change for everyone.

We are creating opportunities and bringing about transformative change by successfully using this approach:

  • Our work in Zimbabwe on group co-guarantee schemes which enable access to finance, is demonstrating that women and young people who lack collateral security when obtaining loans, can now access loans from banks to establish and run businesses.
  • One of our projects in Kenya is enabling young people to invest in agribusiness by working in shorter value chains such as poultry farming, which easily by-pass middlemen and require lower capital investment, generating quicker returns.
  • Our work in Malawi has enabled women smallholder farmers to acquire and own solar-irrigated greenhouses. The women have earned more by working fewer hours and sell their produce in both formal and informal markets. See the Learning Brief: Contract farming and access to energy for women farmers in Malawi.

Through our projects and programmes, we’re seeing women, young people, and other socially excluded groups develop their profile, become successful in markets, and establish themselves as agricultural entrepreneurs. They are also inspiring a ripple effect within their communities. Over time, we have challenged gender-based stereotypes in different parts of the world, changing the narrative of what socially excluded groups can and cannot do.

Because we are seeing real transformative change, we are continuing to use a market systems approach in regenerative agriculture.

3. How we include selected groups in mainstream value chains effectively

Empowering farmers: In the rural and semi-urban areas of developing countries, many women do not have formal employment, while others depend on the incomes of their husbands. Agricultural market systems that are fairly designed have the potential to create jobs for women, young people, and other socially excluded groups. People can also be empowered within their roles to broaden the social reach of agricultural value chains. For example, we know that women smallholder farmers have significant knowledge of traditional practices such as seed systems (Policy Brief: Gender and Farmer Managed Seed Systems in Zimbabwe), so they can play a significant role in improving the way people farm. Employment opportunities include creating a supply chain for regenerative agricultural inputs at the farm and market levels (e.g. supplying raw materials and quality inputs such as biofertilizers), which can increase efficiency and productivity.

Enabling entrepreneurship: Our work enables people to start their own business. We support entrepreneurs to invest in different stages of the economic system (such as processing, packaging, transportation, or distribution) and includes value chains and enterprises with a broader social reach. This helps to build safe and sustainable food systems which can benefit different markets and consumers.

Businesses are also encouraged to adopt economically viable and environmentally sustainable production systems, including community advisors and para veterinary workers who provide extension services with a low carbon footprint.

We have also found that digital literacy and access to digital financial services has enabled women to engage in agribusiness. Digital literacy such as the use of mobile phones used to receive market information has delivered real-time savings from various tasks or helped people access financial services they could not previously get. In the Lumbini Province of Nepal, our work has enabled rural women subsistence farmers to venture into agribusiness and generate reliable incomes (Unlocking opportunities: empowering financial inclusion in rural Nepal). Here and elsewhere our approach is underpinned by building agency, increasing household cooperation, improving market access, and using technology.

A woman in a green coat passionately picking oranges in an orchard, embodying the spirit of "Hope Can't Wait".

Mainstreaming gender, equality and social inclusion: Development practitioners can also play a crucial role in empowering equitable enterprises by improving how prepared they are to receive financing from investors and assisting them to develop internal policies and governance structures that focus on inclusion. Support for this kind of change is provided either directly or through partnerships with institutions dedicated to gender and social inclusion.

Our work in Africa is empowering agribusinesses to increase their processes and efficiency, enabling them to broaden their social reach (by contracting more male, female, and young farmers to supply raw materials). This has created employment opportunities for diverse social groups and helped businesses transition to business processes without harming the planet.

Our work in East Africa creates a vibrancy in rural economies. It has demonstrated that shorter, local value chains hold up well during times of crisis (such as COVID lockdowns) and are ideal for women traders who are playing a very active and central role in distributing agricultural products (see one of our learning briefs to find out more). Our TREYL project in Kenya achieved this by providing markets analysis for local value chains and facilitating platforms for market actors and other stakeholders to engage and do business.

This ambitious 5-year project proves that regenerative agriculture can create viable businesses opportunities for young people and thriving local economies. Over 60 per cent of unemployed people are aged between 18-35 and we wanted to break the cycle of low productivity and poverty. We used a mentorship model which meant people could learn ways to succeed from each other. As a result, project monitoring revealed that record keeping improved, income increased, and the young entrepreneurs were able to sustain their enterprises.

Here, over 45 per cent of young farmers are now able to access finance from both formal and informal institutions (including the Youth Enterprise Development Fund, Women Enterprise Fund and banks).

We are helping to reform local markets through various projects and programmes using this participatory market systems development toolkit. We are achieving this by negotiating reforms with management committees of local markets, which play a crucial role in unlocking opportunities for rural households and women. This is also encouraging local leaders and others to contribute to sustainable gender transformative change and social inclusion.

Overall, our participatory market systems development approach is working to support marginalised groups and build the capacity of enterprises through private-sector partnerships designed to promote gender and social inclusion. Our goal is to increase the direct incomes of undervalued groups in the value chains associated with regenerative agriculture. We also want to enable people to gain employment and engage in business in this sector.

What’s next

Participatory market systems development aims to address systemic problems so that markets work more effectively for marginalised groups, providing more lucrative and fairer opportunities. It does this by modifying the incentives and behaviours that determine how market actors act.

Looking ahead, we want to use our learning to reach more people and make a discernible difference to rural livelihoods.

Please use our Participatory Market Systems Development Toolkit to incorporate gender-sensitive development into your work – and convince colleagues and contacts to do so too; the results, as you can see, can be outstanding!