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Leveraging socio-cultural push and pull factors to benefit women in agribusiness

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All communities are characterised by social norms, cultural values and spiritual beliefs that shape, define and set relational behaviours and standards. Unfortunately, women are often burdened by socio-cultural norms and values that have negative consequences – this is true of most communities in ACP countries. There is a strong case to review how these affect women’s engagement in agribusiness – and explore how social cultural factors and norms can be used to women’s advantage.

Women form an integral part of the agricultural sector globally, and specifically in ACP countries. In sub-Saharan Africa, women account for as much as 50% of the total agricultural labour force. Yet many of them face diverse challenges that prevent them from thriving and unleashing their full potential, not just in agricultural production, but also in agribusiness. Among the challenges women face are limited capacity – including low financial literacy, lack of access to credit and business assets, little or no control over income and other resources, lack of leadership skills and business acumen, and low self-confidence and negotiating skills.

Often, these constraints are due to inequitable gender norms, attitudes and stereotypes, which are embedded in socio-cultural aspects of many communities in ACP. These affect women’s access to productive resources and credit, control over income, and intra-household division of duties, causing gender disparity in employment and economic opportunities. Such factors severely compromise women’s agribusiness prospects, with the majority of their ventures tending to be informal, performing poorly, and with a high risk of failure.

Leveraging socio-cultural opportunities

Despite these negative influences, some socio-cultural elements offer opportunities that women agripreneurs can leverage to build social capital and strengthen capacity development. For example, social ties such as those found in extended family communities are used by many women in agribusiness to access free finance, new farm inputs and family labour, as well as to acquire knowledge of new technologies. All these are key for any business to thrive, and provide critical impetus for women entrepreneurs battling against resource constraints.

At community level, there is clear evidence that women use their social relations to self-mobilise, form business groups, draw business moral support and inspiration, and raise business capital among themselves, offering group collateral so that individual women can access finance from microfinance institutes. Put simply, women agripreneurs use their social ties to help them navigate the socio-cultural limitations that affect their businesses.

Leadership skills and confidence building should form an integral part of capacity development, so that women agripreneurs can address the inhibitive gender norms that have traditionally promoted leadership as a man’s domain – a view that is sometimes perpetuated by women themselves. Using household dialogues to achieve social behaviour change can be highly effective, as shown in Dutch development organisation SNV’s Enhancing Opportunities for Women Enterprise Programme. This initiative encourages women to take leadership positions in economic institutions such as farmer organisations or community women’s groups, enabling them to push back the boundaries of gender by negotiating with their spouses.

Tailor-made capacity building

To reach the majority of women, it is important that business support and capacity development services are delivered in formats and time schedules that fit their heavy workloads. By the same token, it makes sense to organise coaching and mentorship for women by women, not least because this system is more likely to gain community approval, since it poses no threat to cultural norms or the household.

But this by itself is not enough. Efforts from beyond the communities themselves are needed to accelerate the growth of women-led businesses. For example, ACP governments should consider developing an affirmative policy to finance agribusinesses run by women. The Kenyan Government has successfully supported women entrepreneurs with financing. Governments could provide guarantee funds to cater for women’s agribusinesses at different levels of growth. There is also a need to strengthen vertical women’s networks, at all levels of business, from small-scale to large. This method has proved its worth in connecting women to markets, and providing mentoring for women entrepreneurs lower down the ladder, creating a powerful pull effect in the process.

Use of technology – such as mobile money transfers – is already giving women more control over decision-making on income and credit. Efforts should be made to trigger and organise inter-generational support between young and older women in agribusiness, to promote greater use of ICTs and address the digital literacy gap.

At the end of the day, it is not a question of making judgements about one culture or another, but of recognising that socio-cultural factors can have both positive and negative impacts on women involved in agribusiness. What really counts is understanding how gender norms present themselves in each context – and identifying entry points that can be exploited to ensure that women engaged in agribusinesses have just as many opportunities as men.

This article was created through a CTA-led process to document and share actionable knowledge on 'what works' for ACP agriculture. It capitalises on the insights, lessons and experiences of practitioners to inform and guide the implementation of agriculture for development projects.

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