Women’s Farmer Organizations as a Collective Action Strategy for Food Security

The majority of the farmer based organizations (FBOs) I will be working with in Sierra Leone are women’s groups. Here, I argue that these FBOs are more formalized strategies of collective action where assets, decision-making and resource control is maintained by women. This contributes to their individual and collective empowerment needed for food security.

There is a tendency for development planners and policymakers to forget about women, what we call ‘gender neutral’ development. Fortunately, the project I am working on has not. Half of the implementing staffs I am working with are women field staff and many of the FBOs are comprised mostly of women. This is important as the diverse needs and challenges that are unique to women need to be accounted for in order to address inequality in access to ‘food entitlements’ or the different components that contribute to food security.

These unique needs and challenges are socio-cultural because they are dictated by a cultural construction of gender ‘women’. This culture interacts with economic and political issues. For example in Sierra Leone, if I am responsible for purchasing, cooking and distributing all of the food in the household because I am a woman, but do not have independent control over the budget allocated to me (because I am a woman) than that is a gendered issue that will effect nutrition. As those who control the major budget (who are not women) might not have interest in spending it on food as it is not their responsibility. Below I also argue that women’s roles, assets and agency beyond the domestic sphere or household in West Africa are integral to meeting food and nutrition security.

One way to build off of the power women have is through collective action or coordination. This means that people (women and men) come together to use their diverse strengths to overcome the barriers they face (Kania & Kramer, 2011). Women in West Africa in particular are well connected in markets, communities and networks of households/compounds in relation to food. This is why it is not surprising that most of the FBOs involved in this food security project are women’s groups and that implementing staff express the importance of working with them.

Meeting with the implementing staff on strengthening FBOs in Sierra Leone

Meeting with the implementing staff on strengthening FBOs in Sierra Leone

The Implementing staff I am working with in Sierra Leone

The Implementing staff I am working with in Sierra Leone

However, It is Insufficient to Simply Target Women in Agriculture

Those in development who focus on advocating for women’s rights often classify rural women as female farmers, branding them as the major contributors to subsistence agriculture (the production of food for household consumption). They enlist statistics to support their cause, stating that women make up roughly 70-80 per cent of the world’s agricultural labour force, but in many places only having access to one meal per day (World Bank, 2009). This advocacy is meant to justify targeting development efforts on the household or domestic space, such as home gardens, branded as women’s issues to tackle the problem of food insecurity. The focus on women in agriculture strategy as highlighted by the World Bank etc. is comparable to the women in development theory (WID), whereby the strategy is to target women.

However, to address the socio-economic challenges of food insecurity and malnutrition there is a pressing need to consider the gender dimensions and unequal social structures as an integral element of food security in and related to agriculture. For example, you can give a woman a fish to eat or even teach her how to fish, but if her socio-economic environment does not permit her/discourages her from using the fishing skills or eating the fish herself than we have not solved the problem. Instead, we need to address the socio-economic environment. There is insufficient understanding of how the social roles and responsibilities, access to resources, and control over decisions related to food production and allocation exists across various spaces.

Moving beyond this, I would argue that women in West Africa have important roles and strong assets beyond the household and have traditionally had power across many spaces that should be leveraged to tackle food insecurity. The iconic ‘Market Queen’ image depicting women in specific West African markets is an example of women who have gained economic and political power. Market women are well organized and successful in generating income. I think a key strategy for development would be to leverage these strong trading and business skills, which have existed in the region for hundreds of years.

This is also why I get frustrated when those in development speak about women in West Africa as if they are powerless – as if rural women do not know their own problems. The most common phrase I hear is that ‘We need to empower women!’. This does not reflect reality as empowerment comes from within. A more correct strategy would be to facilitate empowerment or unlock potential across various spaces that women themselves identify with.

One way I hope to facilitate empowerment and leverage the legacy of West African ‘Market Queens’ is by fostering open, safe and inclusive communication across FBO meetings between members and extension service providers. Focus group discussions, matrix scoring, key informant interviews and women leaders are shaping the monitoring plan I am developing to try and capture the strategies and ambitions local women have for the FBOs. Hopefully this information can inform future development or investments made.

Market Women in Sierra Leone - my host mother and her business

Market Women in Sierra Leone – my host mother and her business

Women’s FBOs
FBOs are one form of collective action that have traditionally focused more on group formation and mobilization, and the provision of technical and financial inputs via groups. This translates to charities and governments formally creating groups by registering them and giving them free products. After the registration and free products the groups usually stop functioning. This is where I hope we can adapt current efforts in development to move above and beyond the technical provision and formal to actually overcome gender-specific barriers in markets, group governance and the wider policy environment. This might be overly ambitious for a three-month pilot, but I will continue to think BIG, work hard and ask tough questions.

The Evidence So Far
Women’s participation in informal savings groups, alongside their formal participation in mixed groups have been found to be correlated with greater benefits from formal group participation since this strengthened their capacity to exercise leadership, and enabled them access credit. The evidence suggests that these same women were able to retain control over incomes from their participation (Baden, 2013). These findings are also supported by Fischer and Qaim (2011) who found that when both men and women from the same household are group members, women are able to exercise greater control over income. In this particular case, income resulted in better nutritional outcomes at the household level. I would label this ‘economic empowerment’ as women are participating in decision making, and having authority and control over assets in market activities.

This increase
 in economic empowerment of women through formal and informal FBOs is also associated with benefits beyond income, such as improved self-confidence through,
•Group participation and expansion of social networks (I now have more power and a wider network to negotiate across);
•Enhanced decision-making ability due to exposure to new ideas and increased knowledge (I can now begin to think outside the box to make decisions);
•Increased mobility through attending group meetings (I can also leave my community more which will allow me to interact with the network);
•The acquisition of new skills, which can be transferred to household management (I can take this knowledge/skills and convince those within my household to listen to my decisions);
•And increased access to credit (I have the money to improve my business).

According to Kepe and Ferguson (2011) women members in FBOs claimed to have improved their confidence, their negotiating skills, the ability to be of service to their communities through transferring skills to others, and the ability to take control of certain household decisions when dealing with men after they became members of an FBO. They conclude that these social benefits could be enhanced if women were fully acknowledged as important by ‘agents of change’-perhaps development practitioners in general.

What is Needed for FBOs to be an Empowering Space for Women
•Transparent internal governance and strong leadership;
•Support of men and community authorities;
•Leverage market opportunities in growing sectors – better business and opportunities for more profit and other negotiating assets;
•Utilize new technology with training to facilitate women’s participation in new activities;
•Formal membership alone is insufficient it needs to be complimentary with the socio-cultural context;
•Link informal women-only groups to mixed men and women formal groups – larger umbrella FBOs;
•Provide direct support to particular groups of women, such as youth who have less authority or power.

Meanwhile, I hope to promote interest in improving the efficiency of women in pre and post harvest activities as buyers, processors and traders through FBO development. According to Christine Okali, women’s engagement in post-harvest activities in West Africa, such as processing is more organized and powerful than in production, particularly in the production of food where women are often quoted to have the most activity. The focus of women as only actors in domestic spaces, such as subsistence agriculture is too simple. Recognizing and supporting other important roles they might have, such as processors is critical for having a positive impact towards food security.

View of the school in Pujehun Village near where I am living

View of the school in Pujehun Village near where I am living

Baden, S. (2013) ‘Women’s Collective Action: Unlocking the potential of agricultural markets’ [Online] Oxfam International DOI: 978-1-78077-299-8. Available at: http://policy-practice.oxfam.org.uk/publications/womens-collective-action-unlocking-the-potential-of-agricultural-markets-276159 [25 July 2013].

Ferguson, H. and Kepe, T. (2011) ‘Agricultural Cooperatives and Social Empowerment of Women: a Ugandan Case Study’ Development in Practice, 21.3: 421-498

Fischer, E., and Qaim, M. (2012) ‘Gender agricultural commercialization, and collective action in Kenya’ Food Security vol. 4. Pp. 441-452.

Kania & Kramer (2011) ‘Collective Action’ Stanford Social Innovation Review. http://www.ssireview.org/articles/entry/collective_impact

Pandolfelli, L., Meinzen-Dick, R., Dohrn, S. (2008) ‘Gender and Collective Action Motivations, Effectiveness and Impact’ Journal of International Development
J. vol. 20, pp. 1–11

World Bank. (2009) Gender in Agriculture Sourcebook, Washington: The World Bank.


2 thoughts on “Women’s Farmer Organizations as a Collective Action Strategy for Food Security

  1. This is a very good approach for women empowerment. I have worked with FBOs and members have come up with VSLAs to solve issues related to credit access. If women are assisted with farm inputs,have access to loans/credit, supported and trained in Post harvest handling techniques,encouraged to market collectively and linked to markets, then one is sure to impact on their lives positively.. Am not saying this is all that need to eb looked at by these are major influencing factors

  2. Dear Gertrude, thank you for the kind words. I would tend to agree, but like you have said it is not the only answer and it does not necessarily address the underlying causes (culture) that dictates inequality. In order to have meaningful impact in the long term this also needs to be addressed.

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