Since the onset of COVID-19, existing inequalities have been further exacerbated, as already vulnerable and marginalized groups are faced with additional challenges and even further reductions in their access to services and opportunities. Women represent one such group who, despite comprising 50–75% of the African workforce, remain underrepresented and with their needs not sufficiently met.
Amid these challenging times, and prevalent inequalities, the Cultivate Africa’s Future (CultiAF) initiative, jointly funded by Canada’s International Development Research Center (IDRC) and the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research, has been working to bring equality to the forefront of agricultural research and achieve a food secure future in Africa while innovating financing mechanisms to benefit and empower women.
In Kenya and Uganda, the precooked beans initiative is working hard to address gender inequality in their value chain and communities. One of their initiatives in Uganda is the development of a digital framework through which farmers are paid for their produce directly. This ensures that all money female farmers earn is received by them directly. This system empowers women as autonomous business owners, enabling them to register their businesses in their own right, and access their profits independently in order to make their own decisions as to how they will use the money they earn.
One such beneficiary is Nalongo Nabukeera Mary, a smallholder farmer in Uganda and mother of eight children. Through this project, Mary began farming improved bean varieties, supplied by CultiAF, which resulted in huge improvements in her productivity. As a farmer group member, Mary opened up an account with the Masaka Microfinance Development Cooperative Trust. She used the loan she acquired, and has since completely paid off, to diversify her business and pay school fees for her children. “My family has been able to improve our production and consumption of high iron and zinc beans, which has made us food, nutrition and income secure,” she enthuses.
In Malawi, the CultiAF project is empowering women to capitalize on improved methods of processing fish, which are more environmentally-friendly, effective and profitable than traditional methods. However, these technologies cannot be realized to their full potential unless women have access to finance. To help overcome this challenge, the project has established an innovative partnership with FDH bank, a private commercial bank, to provide loans to fish processors, and as part of the project’s gender empowerment strategy, female fish processors are given a preferential reduced interest rate. So far, MK 19.6 million (CAD 31, 893/AUD 32,564) has been distributed among six fish processors, of which three are women, who have constructed six solar dryers, five smoking kilns and two warehouses.
One such beneficiary is 28-year-old Atusaye Msiska, who has successfully accessed MK 2.9 million (CAD 4,740/AUD 4,815) financing in the form of materials, which has enabled her to construct a solar tent dryer, fish smoking kiln and a roofed fish processing shelter. Atusaye can now fry or boil her purchased fish without fear of inclement weather, and protection from flies and contaminants has improved her products’ quality and shelf-life. “When the business environment is fine and demand is high, I make a profit margin amounting to MK 50,000 (CAD 81/AUD 83) per week. With this profit, I take care of my child and buy household essentials,” states Atusaye. In addition, Atusaye is using the loan money to pay tuition and accommodation fees for a diploma course at the local college.
Through the loan to Atusaye and others like her, the productivity and success of women in the fish value chain has improved, and women are thus demonstrating their viability as business owners and investees. The success of the initiative will also demonstrate to the bank, and others, that women are reliable in paying back their loans, thus ensuring improved access to finance for more women in the future.
Santiago Alba Corral, the Director of IDRC’s Climate-Resilient Food Systems program believes that integrating gender equality at the core of any project, society or community is crucial in building resilience even to the biggest pandemic of the century“The fact that inequality, and the potential of gender transformative research, was already part of the design of CultiAF has actually helped us to absorb part of the shock of COVID within the projects, because every single initiative already had a gender framework as part of its approach,” he said.
As International Women’s Day 2021 is celebrated, the far-reaching impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic have yet to be seen, but it is clear that the pandemic has exposed inequality more clearly for all to see, states Edidah Lubega Ampaire, CultiAF Senior Program Specialist. “The last year has made evident that situations affect men and women differently, so now no one can argue that the gender disparity we’ve been working to address does not exist.” She adds that it is critical we must now capitalize on this increased awareness to “rally alliances and partnerships and to undertake actions to address inequalities.”