Agricultural Enterprises: An Engine of Impact for Rural Girls

Odalis Noeme Guerrero was raised in the remote highlands of the Peruvian Andes. Ever since she was a little girl, she wanted to be a coffee farmer. But her father, a coffee producer himself, claimed it was “man’s work” and refused to let her join. While her brothers inherited property when they came of age, Odalis did not. 

But Odalis wasn’t ready to give up. When her father refused to support her studies at the nearby technical institute, she paid her own way—waking up every day at 5 a.m. to clean other people’s houses and care for their children before class. Eventually, she convinced her father to let her practice farming on a small, unproductive plot that he had long given up on. Over time, she boosted production on that parcel from 200 to an incredible 1,800 pounds of coffee per harvest.
When we met Odalis, she was part of a two-member technical team at UNICAFEC, a coffee cooperative that aggregates 400 smallholder farmers. In fact, she was the only woman agronomist in the entire province of San Ignacio, teaching farmers how to properly prune, fertilize, and increase their yields. She’s illustrative of both the barriers that rural girls and young women face as well as the individual, household, and community benefits that are possible when they can equitably participate in the workforce. Odalis’ story is also the story of an overlooked but catalytic engine of impact in rural communities: the agricultural business.

I advised my parents to plant trees, and they did plant eucalyptus trees along the river bank ... and even the community in Leki planted trees under the Safety Net [Productive Safety Nets Program] project and the rain returned to us.

—Biritu, aged 16, Leki, Ethiopia

Girls and women are the backbone of farming families. In low- and middle-income countries, they make up 48 percent of the agricultural workforce; in some areas, up to 79 percent. Young women, in particular, are a growing force. Today’s youth population—1.2 billion and rapidly rising—represents both a challenge and a huge demographic opportunity for rural communities.  
At the same time, young women face bigger constraints to rural workforce participation than young men. They have limited access to inputs such as seeds and fertilizer. They typically don’t own or inherit land. If they want to invest in farm renovations or build a small business, they are less likely to be approved for a loan. When they find productive employment, they will almost certainly be paid less. And because of social norms and division of household responsibilities, they face constraints to working outside the home.
For young women like Odalis who are just entering the workforce, these barriers may seem insurmountable. But agricultural businesses—cooperatives, farmer associations, and small private enterprises—are well positioned to help rural girls minimize these obstacles and maximize opportunities. These businesses aggregate hundreds or even thousands of smallholder farmers, enabling their members to access local and global markets and earn higher incomes. They also provide critical services such as agronomic training and microcredit that help producers make investments to build sustainable livelihoods. 

The benefits that agricultural enterprises bring to smallholder farmers writ large are well documented. More recently, donors, lenders, and even some rural businesses themselves have begun making targeted investments to support rural women and girls. Although more data is needed, the results thus far are extremely promising.
Here’s just one example. Root Capital launched its Women in Agriculture Initiative in 2012 with the express goal of promoting greater economic opportunity for women by supporting small and growing businesses that are committed to gender inclusion. As part of this program, we partnered with rural enterprises in our lending portfolio to analyze barriers to full workforce participation of their female farmers and employees. We leveraged the deep gender expertise of Value for Women, which specializes in evaluating business practices with a gender lens, to help these enterprises design projects to improve their inclusion of women and enhance workers’ quality of life. In the pilot phase in 2017, we awarded $20,000 in grants—supported by the IKEA Foundation and the Wagner Foundation—to three businesses in Kenya to implement their chosen projects, from creating internal savings and credit circles to constructing on-site childcare facilities to training women in new productive skills. Our assessment of the pilot phase found evidence of benefits at the individual, household, and enterprise levels. Among other things, workers reported increased savings, confidence, and capacity. Businesses reported gains in productivity, cost savings, and a more consistent supply base. 

Through implementing [these grants], I've learned that women are among the most powerful tool in our society and in our factory.

—Manager at a nut processing facility

For adolescent girls transitioning into the rural workforce, investments like these can make the difference between eking out a subsistence livelihood and building long-term resilience. Our participatory design process means that young women’s voices are heard and interventions are tailored to their distinct challenges and strengths. By involving the leadership of the agricultural businesses—oftentimes men—projects such as this also have the potential to shift community norms and behaviors. One manager at a nut processing facility noted, “Through implementing [these grants], I’ve learned that women are among the most powerful tool in our society and in our factory.”
This is just one example of how agricultural businesses can partner with young women to advance their mutual interests. When girls and women are active participants in rural economies, they move the needle on a whole host of issues. They help close the gender gap in education, reduce malnutrition, and invest a whopping 90 percent of their income back into their families (compared to 35 percent for men). 
Maximizing these gains requires a cross-sector effort between businesses, philanthropists, gender experts, and more. Donors and investors in the development space need to prioritize a holistic gender and youth lens in their grant making and impact investing. Public-sector actors are well positioned to identify innovative and effective approaches to engaging young women in rural communities and inject larger amounts of capital to scale up impact. Finally, social lenders can draw on lessons from the work of Root Capital and others to help agricultural enterprises capitalize on the business-related benefits of investing in the next generation of female farmers, employees, and entrepreneurs. The next Odalis is out there, ready to grow a brighter future.