This year, the International Day of Rural Women celebrates with the theme “gender equality today for a sustainable tomorrow.” Gender equality is firmly associated with agricultural productivity and social and economic development. It is important to recognize and support the contribution of women worldwide to agriculture as well as to climate adaptation and mitigation.
Sasmita Patnaik, Technical Assistance Facilitator and Gender Advisor, and Yogeeta Sharma, Communication and Knowledge Management Specialist, WE4F South and Southeast Asia Regional Hub, reflect on how the region’s innovators are adopting a better approach to increase gender equality and women’s empowerment for sustainable development and climate change mitigation.
Rural Women and Agriculture
Rural women play a significant role in the local and regional food systems by supporting households and communities in food production and security. They are heavily involved in agricultural value chains from production to processing and marketing, making them a strong partner and a targeted customer for water-energy-food nexus companies. Given that about 65% of the total population in Asia and 75% of the population in Southeast Asia is predominantly rural, rural women are at the core of countries’ economic development. When governments and other stakeholders focus on rural women’s capacity building and incomes, it can help make traditional farming more productive and commercially viable.
However, according to the 2021 State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World (SOFI) report, 2020 saw as many as 161 million more hungry people than in 2019 and nearly 2.37 billion people did not have access to adequate food. For women, this is especially concerning as they tend to experience a lower socio-economic status than men. New projections of global poverty by UN Women, UNDP and the Pardee Center for International Futures estimate that, globally, 388 million women and girls will be living in extreme poverty in 2022. While, according to a UN report 2021, 32% of women, compared to 27.5% of men, go hungry.
When food insecurity rises, women and girls are at the highest risk of – and most vulnerable to – hunger and violations of their rights. Women and girls often bear a disproportionate burden to provide for their families – whether going without meals to feed others or trekking long distances to find water and suitable food, making them vulnerable to sexual assault. Additionally, due to COVID-19, the World Economic Forum (2021) estimates that the time needed to close the global gender gap increased from 99.5 years to 135.6 years.
Overcoming the Barriers
Mitigating the challenges faced by rural women and improving their livelihoods is a task that requires the participation of all sectors. For instance, within the water-energy-food (WEF) nexus, some of our WE4F-supported companies and nonprofits benefit women by integrating them into their business models, building and leveraging women’s capacity to change gender norms in the local context, improving their employment opportunities and building profitable businesses with the goal of sustainable food production by smallholder farmers.
Rural women engage in these business models as users or customers of the innovations, partners or suppliers of the product or service, and as employees of these companies. Today, Water and Energy for Food will focus on some key innovations that have engaged and benefited from the involvement of rural women in their value chain.
The Symbiotic Relationship between WEF Innovations and Rural Women
Water-energy-food innovations see rural women as the primary users and, consequently, partners in their business models. Rural women and innovators gain from a win-win situation, with enterprises profiting from a stable customer and partner base and women getting the economic benefit, access to agricultural resources and tools, and recognition for their contribution to farming.
Across the region, there are local companies empowering women and providing new models for the private sector engagement. Below are only some of the many examples where rural women have proven to be strong partners for companies aiming to achieve food security, enhance smallholder farmer incomes, and promote gender equality.
Mandala AgriFresh in Nepal, supports farmers with post-harvest management practices through solar-powered cold storage and modified atmospheric packaging bags. Its procurement process gives women farmers assured market access to sell their produce at higher-than-conventional trader prices. The company plans to scale its operations and set up a traceable supply chain to reduce food loss and imports for Nepal.
Similarly, in India, companies such as Jaljeevika , The Goat Trust (through its online platform Pashubajaar), Promethean Power Systems, Rural Development Organisation, S4S Technologies, and ZooFresh have seen improvement in their market share by working with rural women as village level entrepreneurs, customers of innovative solutions, and last mile distribution partners with deep links within the community to facilitate the mobilizations of farmers and sales. Rural women constitute between 33 to 100% of their customers, partners and employees. These organizations, through their business models, have tried to improve the bargaining power of rural women in their communities and households while addressing systemic challenges (e.g, asset ownership) among women.
ATEC International in Bangladesh has designed biogas digesters and electromagnetic induction stoves that focus on women as the primary customers. By addressing women directly in their marketing and outreach, the company has added significant value to its operations, customers and investors. Another innovator, Pumpkin Plus, has worked primarily with rural women and youth on innovative sandbar cropping and market access for improved incomes for the farmers.
Women-led innovation, Sumba Sustainable Solutions, has supported women farmers’ access to locally affordable milling and value-add services that are closer to production. Sumba Sustainable Solutions sells solar home systems on a lease purchasing model, where farmers purchase in small installments. They work with one agent in the village to provide agro-processing facilities for corn, rice, coconut and coffee for the local producers. The purpose of providing this facility is to reduce the domestic workload of women. To date, they have provided 3,000 solar home systems to households and 50 agro-processing mills.
Khmer Green Charcoal produces a sustainable coconut-based charcoal that reduces the mortality rate of chick brooding by 97%. They have marketed their affordable charcoal to women poultry farmers in rural Cambodia by using local women distributors. The company has also introduced training and policies to address gender-based violence among its women employees. By addressing the business challenges of absenteeism and the cost of rehiring and retraining workers, they’re able to create significant social impact among the communities they work with.
Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam
A company operating across the region RecyGlo, enables rural women to work as both suppliers of organic fertilizers and sellers/distributors of produce. The micro-entrepreneurship opportunities, which are supported by insurance, training, and technical assistance from RecyGlo, positively impact women’s bargaining power. As critical actors in the agricultural value chain, rural women are essential partners for RecyGlo to scale and create impact.
Looking Toward the Future
For these innovators, working with rural women and addressing market barriers is a smart business decision with an evident impact. Many other innovators are making strategic business model changes that leverage the capabilities of rural women to expand their market access and improve the adoption of their solutions among smallholder farmers. To strengthen the economy and enhance the well-being of people in countries in Asia, a focus on rural smallholder farmers is essential. In this conversation, rural women are important partners to consider and are the best advocates – and overall gamechangers – for sustainable solutions.
WE4F-supported businesses empower rural women by linking them to agricultural value chains and expanding their access to land and rural finance. Every changemaker starts somewhere. On this occasion of International Rural Women’s Day, partner with WE4F to create a better world for women. Write to the South and Southeast Asia Hub at WE4FAsiaRIH@tetratech.com