Women too can run viable agribusinesses; they need support

“Not fully involving women in economic development is like having a team and not allowing half of it to play”. These were the words of the former US President Barrack Obama when he visited Nairobi in 2015.

There is no other sector of the economy where this rings truer than in agriculture. Employing up to 70% of the continent’s population, mostly women and youth, one would expect that women would be given equal opportunities in access to land, finance and technologies.

Finding ways of closing this gender gap and supporting women to thrive in agriculture as a business was the focus of a session on women in business at this year’s European Development Days in Brussels.

Addressing participants at the event, the AGRA President, Dr. Agnes Kalibata, stated that while women constitute over 50 per cent of the population involved in agriculture, they do not have access to the same resources and opportunities as men. As a result, their yields are 20-30 per cent lower than men’s.

Noting that there are many challenges impeding women’s full participation in businesses generally and agribusinesses in particular, Dr. Kalibata called for increased investment by both public and private sector to urgently address barriers that women face to meaningfully participate and benefit from agriculture. She noted that gender and cultural norms that predetermine women’s role in the society and inhibit women to freely make their own decisions or to access resources such as land is one key barrier that needs to be addressed. She noted that men normally have the best interests of their daughters and should use this perspective to address cultural barriers to gender equality.

She noted that the other key barriers include: unequal access to quality seeds, fertilizers, finance and capacities and managerial skills. She highlighted access to finance as perhaps one area where women struggle the most. They mostly do not have collateral which is required by banks and other financial institutions. They also struggle with the development of bankable project plans.

Highlighting some of AGRA’s work aimed at supporting women in agriculture, Dr. Kalibata said that providing women with funding in form of grants that requires no collateral is key to supporting their businesses. She also added that women require technical assistance both at the business plan development and project implementation levels.

For instance, in a continent where only about 20 percent of farmers use improved seed varieties, AGRA has, through its grant making process, nurtured the growth and development of over 100 African seed companies. These companies have produced about 600,000 MT of high-quality, high-yielding seeds which have been distributed to an estimated 15 million farmers, with significant impact on yields and incomes.

While the per centage of such companies owned by women is still low, some, like Faso Kaba of Mali that was founded by Maïmouna Sidibe Coulibaly, show that women can run successful businesses. Faso Kaba is the leading seed company in Mali and specializes in the production and sale of a wide range of improved seeds, including cereals, oil seeds, market gardening, fodder and tuber seeds that are improving agricultural yields by up to 40 per cent. Ms. Coulibaly is starting to supply seeds to neighbouring countries

She also gave the example of the Women Economic Empowerment in Agribusiness (WEE-A) initiative by the Africa Enterprise Challenge Fund (AECF); an offshoot of AGRA. This initiative is aimed at addressing gender inequalities through market-based approaches that will fund competitions with a special bias towards investments in women-owned and/or women-led small- medium enterprises. The US $50 million fund will be piloted in selected agriculture value chains in Ethiopia, Sierra Leone, Cote d’Ivoire and Burkina Faso in June 2018.

It will give grants ranging from US $100,000 to US $1 million to selected sustainable businesses with the businesses providing matching funds of 1:0.5.

The fund will require no collateral meaning that more women can access it. It will also ensure that many eligible women are able to submit bankable proposals, by providing them with technical assistance in the application process; this was identified as a key challenge in previous windows. The technical assistance will remain available throughout the grant cycle on need basis

Furthermore, the requirement for matching funds both in cash and kind has been reduced from 1:1 to 1:05 as has the business investment portfolio which has been reduced from a minimum of USD 250,000 and a maximum of USD 1.5 million to a minimum of USD 100,000 and a maximum of USD 1 million.

In closing, Dr. Kalibata called for strengthening of ties and partnerships between Africa and the rest of the world in both public and private sector to continue providing support to women entrepreneurs. She cited the example of the EU’s External investment Programme as an innovative vehicle for driving financing into women in agri-businesses. She encouraged women to overcome “fear of failure” and urged men to support women in overcoming this. Just as men try and sometimes fail in businesses, women should feel free to try and fail because it is in trying that they will succeed.

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