“The increased number of women in Parliament has not necessarily made a dent in the overall patriarchal domination that partains both inside and outside the walls of Parliament.” Professor Sylvia Tamale.
The spotlight has shifted to Rwanda in recent years, the land of a thousand hills. She has risen from the valleys, with not only an economy that shows great promise but progress towards gender equality. The female Members of Parliament (MPs) outnumber their elected male counterparts. The Cabinet achieved a 50:50 gender balance. Although many women continue to play a substantial role in politics, beyond occupying the echelons of power, there is still work to be done, especially regarding the involvement of women in agribusiness. This is a vital cog of future export growth that is likely to occur through Agriculture, food processing and light manufacturing sectors according to a report from the International Growth Centre.
Agribusiness includes all activities within the agricultural food and natural resource industry that are involved in the production of food and fibre. Agribusiness examines farming problems in a more comprehensive manner through the development of updated agriculture methods, including production, processing and distribution. Technology-driven agriculture in Africa needs more input to meet the growing population needs and boost production in agriculture.
A United Nations (UN) Women study of East Africa iterates, “Women are absent in agribusiness, yet they constitute 79% of labour in agriculture but only 24% are doing agribusiness”. This is a contrasting statistic relevant to a country like Rwanda, which is already recognized as a leading nation in gender equality.
Do Rwanda’s female farmers still require additional support when it comes to agribusiness to increase their capacities? The answer to both these questions is, of course, “yes”, especially considering that most women are still involved in subsistence farming. Women in Rwanda, as well as in other developing countries, face challenges such as lack of land, lack of corporate tools, inadequate technology, poor extension support and little access to markets, thus hindering their role in agriculture productivity. Efforts should be directed in those areas.
And while the proportion of women involved in agribusiness in Rwanda is better than the overall figures for East Africa, (a survey conducted by the Rwanda Gender Monitoring office shows that the total population of Rwandans engaged in agricultural activities at 67.6%, of which 79% are females and 54.4% are males). Gender inequalities remain persistent in the selling of high-yield agriculture. Males continue to dominate in selling agricultural produce/yield for small-scale and large-scale crops, leaving women limited to subsistence farming (Gender Monitoring Office, 2017).
There are a number of contributing factors to women’s exclusion from agribusiness. First, access to land continues to be one of the main hindrances affecting women involved in agriculture. With most land owned by males, women land-owners are something of a rarity. Only about 1% of Rwandan land is owned by women, and this is mostly comprised of small plots (relative to male land-owners!) that all too often are characterized by infertile soil. This leads most women to engage in subsistence farming, rather than looking to commercial options. Tapping into this drastically improves output that will be key in the coming years.
Second, the limited access to finance for women. Most women in rural areas involved in agriculture have less experience in borrowing from institutions. This, when combined with lack of awareness, education, and fear of obtaining small loans, can prove to be a substantial barrier to funding. Without assistance and support, women farmers find it particularly difficult to access finance to grow their businesses.
Various government initiatives, however, have been put in place to help Rwandan women and young people access to finance. These have resulted in an increase in women accessing formal finance from 36% in 2012 to 63% in 2016. While this increase is to be applauded, it is still low compared to men who increased access from 51% in 2012 to 74% in 2016 (MIGEPROF, 2016). Initiatives aligned to this cause are likely to generate more government support if set up in Rwanda.
Third, the lack of focus on new practices and techniques in farming or commerce. For example, it takes three years for a coffee tree to bear fruit, following which coffee farmers will harvest their crops annually from March-May, perhaps reaping 800-1200 kg of coffee cherries per hectare. Effective practices such as reduced land fragmentation, increased use of both organic and inorganic fertilizer, and mulching are all utilized to boost yields.
But most agricultural improvements focus on large-scale commercial farming, with limited research conducted on the techniques employed on smaller farms, which are often owned by women. “The World Bank funded projects—the Rural Sector Support Project (RSSP) and the Land Husbandry, Water Harvesting and Hillside Irrigation (LWH) Project—helped the government of Rwanda increase productivity and commercialization of marshland and hillside agriculture in targeted areas.
They also allowed for investment in rural infrastructure, which have been put in place to link productive areas to markets” (World Bank,2019). This has impacted over 500,000 women and to the utilization of previously unused land.
Women in Rwanda also lack market opportunities, attributable to the lack of wider market research or data. Women tend to be confined to local markets where prices are generally low. As a product or produce makes its way from the farm to the local then wider market or distribution centers, women tend to lose both control and income (Gurung, 2006).
These disadvantages reduce women’s effectiveness as key players in value chains and reduce their overall market effectiveness. As the women turn to “experts” within the value chain they lose yet more influence as they’re pushed further away from their product, and so the vicious cycle continues. The opportunity herein lies in leveraging technology to access worldwide markets and using data for the betterment of agriculture that is the backbone of many African economies. This can provide a direct link between suppliers and end consumers, retailers using easy access to financial services simplified by the rise of fintech. There is a gap in the utilization of current tools that would increase export revenue and provide a boost in Rwanda.
Efforts through agencies and initiatives seeking to address this imbalance have been set in place. This includes Challenges Rwanda’s Coffee Market Building for People and Prosperity project. This far-reaching programme is supporting co-op farmers by delivering business training and working to grow market access, something that is already bringing major advantages to female farmers.
The focus should be on multiplying across what is done on a small scale using current trends in agriculture while utilizing the abundance of labour in African economies. The business mentality for women should shift from taking of care of families to growing sustainable agribusiness. Projects tackling this area, alongside other initiatives will mean more female farmers can take leading roles within agribusiness, and that one day very soon the gender balance within the sector will match that of Rwanda’s parliament!