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Decision and Policy Analysis Research Area – DAPA

Investing in Agriculture through a Gender Lense: Challenges, Opportunities and Areas for Review

The need to focus in on women and girls in development represents a critical, growing field of work that’s ushering in new development projects and some big ideas for greater inclusion in both markets and in the workplace.  Women farmers in the developing world face structural and social barriers to accessing credit, technical assistance, and business development services, dramatically reducing their productivity, livelihoods, and ability to remain farming.  With more than half of the poorest small scale farmers female, agricultural development projects and investment in small scale agriculture must be considered through a gender lens.



Women entrepreneurs in agriculture are creating enterprises that are responding to market needs in endless ways.  Through cooperative leadership and creation, engagement in food selling and export opportunities, value addition and fulfillment of various processing needs, women-lead farmers and entrepreneurs are creating jobs and reinvesting in their families and local communities.

Earlier this month in San Francisco, I was pleased to sit in on the  SOCAP panel, “Fertile Ground; Investment Vehicles Using a Gender Lens and Engaging Women Investors.”   The panelists from Criterion Ventures, Women’s Funding Network, Golden Seeds, and Bridgespan, had a lot to say about using women investors as a mechanism from which to lend and offer capital to for critical social impact goals that are geared towards empowering and supporting women.

Yet, as a sector, women entrepreneurs, specifically those in agriculture, face complicated challenges in accumulating the tools they need to operate successful farms and profitable small-scale enterprises.  While we’re seeing an outpouring of demand to offer funding for investments that offer clear social (and gender-specific impacts) as well as a financial return,  finding women-lead initiatives that are mature enough for investment can be a challenge.   In developing countries, women-farmers account for more than 60% of the rural labor force and produce up to 80% of local food.  But these rural women represent 60% of the worlds hungry population and and suffer dramatically from rules and cultural tendencies that deny them access to land, land ownership, and vital resources.

How can we identify, support, and grow these women-lead enterprises to points of investment?

1. Identifying needs:

As mentioned, in development, studies show that productivity of women-headed farms versus male-headed farms is shifting from being a question of biology from one of access to resources.  Specifically women farmers lack access to:

  • finance
  • fertilizer and seeds
  • drought animals and hand tools
  • labor (constrained)
  • land (constrained or denied, outright)

The CGIAR program on Participatory Research and Gender Analysis has made some incredible headway in inclusive research in agriculture, development, and science.   Certainly, lessons learned in participatory methods, including plant breeding and land use can inform finance, investment, and the corresponding organizational structure debates on how to be more inclusive of the participants they are trying to affect, in our case, women.   A follow up post on concept in particular, is certainly due.

2. Creating gender-based clusters that merit investment

For the development community, we have our work cut out for us in having a gender-based approach towards creating pockets of effective demand in developing countries.  By pooling and clustering women-lead initiatives into larger investment opportunities that support both scale-up and lower-cost business development support, we can attempt to reduce transaction costs and maximize impact.  Check out these interesting cluster initiatives (this review and global survey is particularly interesting)  and have a look at some work done in the Phillipines by CRS with some support by CIAT researchers, like Mark at our very own Markets group.

For agriculture, key research areas remain to understanding the credit demand within emerging markets and specifically with women entrepreneurs.  First, accurate credit demand levels are relatively unknown.  Thus, when traditional credit offerings have been extended, they are often singularly supply driven – created in response to perceived risk and scarcity.   We have no idea what tools the market would create or how large the demand would be along a sliding scale of interest rates and collateral requirements. We do know, however, that interest rates and collateral requirements, at this time, cause a significant amount of farmers to opt out of credit.

Second,  women entrepreneurs in the developing world tend to be more conservative with capital needs estimates.  The size of funding needed for most female-lead small and growing enterprises is virtually unknown.

3. Ready, Set, Invest!

Easier said than done, of course.  But better partnership building between the public sector (including innovative collaborations between NGOs, governments and funders/investors) and the private sector are turning old relationships and traditional roles upside down while capitalizing on sector strengths and speeding up project development.   On the ground, NGO’s are building new alliances with local partners while investors are seeing the benefits of triple bottom line investing as an alternative to grant giving and an opportunity to expand in emerging markets.

What about real returns?

The development case for focusing on women is clear enough, but does gender diversity and investment in women really generate real returns?  In the corporate world, recent reports by McKinsey suggest that a focus on gender matters to the bottom line.   Spotlights on women entrepreneurs, like this Oxfam UK Enterprise Development Project focusing on Remarkable Women, showcase the ability for women in developing nations to pilot new market opportunities, create employment, and run successful operations.

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