Maximising the female force behind African agri supply chains

In the developed world, debates rage on boardroom gender quotas and equality of executive pay. However, far less prominence is given to the basic issues in the emerging markets where the value and treatment of women workers at the opposite end of the scale go largely unnoticed. These women in low-paid, manual jobs form the ‘invisible’ backbone of major industries and big business.

Whether it is agriculture in Africa or garment production in Asia, the similarities are overwhelming: the majority of contributors at points of origin are those on low incomes, with a large proportion being women. Yet, due to similar contextual and cultural factors, the opportunities to improve female livelihoods, including their economic contributions, are limited if not addressed. Olam’s own experience with the growing number of women amongst our network of 3.4 million smallholder farmers in Africa, as well as the thousands who are employed in our processing plants, has reaffirmed our belief that neglecting this latent talent makes poor business sense.

The common denominators

Lack of education is a fundamental problem for both sexes in emerging markets. Creating platforms for people to develop their literacy and numeracy provides a stronger basis for sustainable growth, but due to cultural legacies, women are often more disadvantaged when it comes to levelling the playing field.

Centuries of tradition mean that in many such countries the woman is seen as the nurturing breadmaker but not the main breadwinner. Men therefore often find it difficult to accept women’s authority in supervisory roles in the workplace. On top of this, as we have found in our agri supply chain networks, most low income women really do ‘have it all’ – housework, childcare, community support and work, the pressures of which can restrict them from embarking on training or career development.

Cumulatively this translates into a cycle of poverty where mothers can have no expectation that their daughters or granddaughters will be better educated or live a better quality of life than they themselves. This not only stifles women’s advancement, but impacts on the Brand Africa bottom line.

Impact on African agriculture

According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, women perform 66% of the world’s work, and produce 50% of the food, yet earn only 10% of the income and own 1% of the property. The situation is particularly acute for rural women who fare worse than rural men and urban men and women against all the Millennium Development Goal indicators in areas as diverse as agriculture, nutrition, health and education.

The ripple effect of illiteracy, common across both genders, has particular consequences for women when it comes to trying to make the transition from subsistence farming to a more sustainable livelihood that in turn generates greater yields for companies such as Olam to purchase. More often than not, we have found that women do not inherit land tenure rights and without being able to read or write they can’t access information or complete the forms necessary to apply for the documents.

The low levels of female land ownership also significantly obstruct their access to financial assets, including credit and saving. This makes it difficult to invest in farms or influence decision-making. The knock-on effect continues as women are then prevented from joining farming cooperatives that provide both buying power and support networks. And, where women do have their own farms, often their husbands will still expect them to allocate more time and family resources to his work. Even when women farmers buck the trend and become co-operative leaders, this is frequently met with resistance.

Closing the gender gap in terms of access to resources and support for women in the agriculture sector also makes good economic sense. According to the Food & Agriculture Organization, if women had the same access to productive resources such as training, land and seeds as men, they could increase yields on their farms by 25-30% and raise agricultural output from 2.5 to 4%. In turn this could reduce the number of hungry people in the world by 12 to 17%.

Moving forward

There is no doubt that there are a plethora of Africa-based programmes in place in food supply and other industries to help improve women’s opportunities, yet good intentions need to translate into real outcomes. This is most successful when it is based on detailed insights and a deep understanding of the issues that women are facing.

Companies, governments and NGOs all play a part – we have seen some practical initiatives with significant impact including:

  • Collaborating with other relevant stakeholders to extend reach and maximise expertise. All too often organisations – be it government, the private sector or NGOs – take a silo approach to issues meaning that resources are not maximised and impact is reduced. Olam could not have made the advances it has in supporting subsistence farmers without partnering with expert organisations. In Nigeria, for example, as part of our partnership with certification body, Rainforest Alliance, we trained over 1,500 female cocoa farmers last year in Good Agricultural Practices to improve quality and yield
  • Creating and implementing consistent policies that uphold equal pay, treatment and rights, including freedom of association
  • Initiating calls for multi-stakeholder collaboration to reduce discrimination and address illiteracy, including ‘normalising’ education for young girls
  • Organising women into co-operatives, as unified they have the confidence to negotiate and sustain themselves. Alternatively, encourage informal women’s groups that have the benefit of collective resources
  • Opening avenues to credit or capital on a term basis to increase access
  • Initiating ways to involve women in decision making without asset ownership
  • Sensitising male workers to the mutual benefit of valuing women’s contributions and how working together can boost prosperity using real-life examples that they can relate to
  • Developing working environments that accommodate women’s broader responsibilities and healthcare requirements especially during pregnancy and breast-feeding
  • Developing monitoring systems so that plans and policies are data-based and target-driven
  • Implementing supplier codes to help practices translate throughout supply chains
  • Understanding what your workforce values to improve productivity, retention and socio-economic development

This last example is often overlooked but is important to the longevity of workforces. For example, a recent survey among nearly 4,000 women across Olam’s cashew processing plants in Côte d’Ivoire, Mozambique, Nigeria, and Tanzania revealed that beyond their wage packets, 37% of the women felt that their job gives them independence and choices and 32% believe it provides status and confidence.

The bottom line of female inclusion

Whether in the developed world or in Africa’s emerging markets, the parallels are similar – women play an essential part in economic development, have an equal contribution to make to business and yet there are still limiting factors.

At a time when Africa’s economic development is on the brink of soaring, recognising the value of women’s contributions, both as workers and entrepreneurs, presents a powerful opportunity to build inclusive industries within the foundations of modern African commerce.

Briony Mathieson is head of corporate & sustainability communications at Olam International