Women in rural Africa are busy from morning till night. A woman in a rural community supported by the Sasakawa Africa Association (SAA) typically works on the farm and processes and sells her produce, while also managing her household chores and taking care of children. Training in high-quality agro-processing techniques and basic business skills has helped the women’s association members become active players in the local economy, and offers them a way to build their confidence and self-reliance.
Women’s Strength Makes Communities Stronger
Women play many roles on small farms, contributing to every step of the production process—from planting and weeding, to harvesting and then threshing, processing, and sales—helped at times by their family members. In particular, women play a key role in harvesting crops and processing them.
Yet, many regions in Africa adhere to an extremely male-centric value system. In some countries, only men are permitted to own land. And in many places it is not at all uncommon for men to make every important decision, including what to plant, how much to invest in seed and fertilizer, when to bring the harvest to market, and what to do with the profits. Since men make up the bulk of agricultural extension workers, training sessions tend to be focused on men, and new techniques and technology usually do not reach female members of the household. Indeed, many husbands object to the very idea of their wife joining a training session.
In an effort to deal with the many issues facing women in small farming households, the SAA has established platforms where women can develop processing and production skills to improve the efficiency of their own household farms. This SAA program has faced some opposition from men who refuse to accept new social roles for women. For example, on one visit to an SAA plot in Nigeria set aside for female farmers, the SAA discovered the plot had been taken over by a man.
But while there have been challenges, things have improved greatly. Some farms, despite being managed exclusively by women, have men working together with the women, providing labor for planting and harvesting. According to the SAA’s country director for Nigeria, Dr. Sani Miko, “prejudice against women is common, but we can only overcome the situation by having men and women work together.” Theme director (for postharvest and agro-processing), Leonides Halos-Kim, adds: “We are striving to provide training to both husbands and wives, and to men and women together, and this has brought positive results. These days, we frequently see men helping women at female-led businesses.”
One of the women who works at a Women-Assisted Demonstration (WAD) plot located in Arsi Negele, Ethiopia said that the work has changed her life: “In the past, our farm was run exactly according to what my husband’s wishes, but since joining the program I’ve made connections with other female farmers from the region. Together, we discuss agricultural issues, such as how to best use seeds and fertilizers, and we also discuss social concerns.”
Introducing these new technologies has delivered greater productivity and improved standards of living, but these women have not lost their generosity of spirit nor their faith. For them, the bounty of a harvest is still in God’s hands, as one explains: “The size and quality of a harvest depends on the weather, and no one can say when or how much rain will fall.”
Organizing to Increase Women’s Opportunities
The SAA supports a women’s agro-processing cooperative in Mojo, Ethiopia by offering training on hygienic handling and processing of products. For grains like maize and wheat, this includes proper threshing, winnowing, and removing stones and other impurities at home, before bringing the grain to a local mill. Hot peppers, likewise, are hulled, winnowed of impurities, and sundried for several days at home, before being crushed with garlic, herbs, and salt using a mortar and pestle and then further dried at home. Finally, the processed spices are brought to the mill to be ground. Once a week, members bring their processed products to the cooperative’s shop.
After an on-site quality inspection by a quality-control committee of the cooperative, the products are packed in plastic bags and labels are attached with information that includes the processors' name. The products are then sold in the shops, with 10% of the profits returned to the cooperative and the rest given to the processors and producers. The farmers' cooperative uses the revenue from product sales to purchase and label packaging, to expand cooperative shops, and to cover other overhead. The cooperative runs a shop that sells products to the community in small quantities (250g or 500g) specially packed for family use. Daily sales typically total around 1,000 birr (JPY 4,500), while weekly sales of 5,000 to 7,000 birr (JPY 20,000−30,000) are common.
Hard Work Pays
It is said that there’s no such thing as a “housewife” in African farming communities. African women are the first in the family to rise in the morning, and sleep only after everyone else has gone to bed. One such working mother is Aster Tadesse, an amazing woman who has used income from farming and processing to pay for her husband’s higher education and build a house.
At one point, Aster, who is a member of the women’s agro-processing cooperative described above, was supporting nine family members on the income she made from growing, processing, and selling grains and beans. With her support, her husband was able to gain a secondary-school education and find work in the public sector. He currently works in nearby city. Aster’s three-bedroom house, with a living room and storeroom, was built eight years ago. Since then, she has taken out a three-year loan to install solar panels to provide electricity. Since moving out of its old house, the family has built a small barn and grain storehouses to keep up with their growing needs; the old house now is occupied by relatives.
This success story was based on improving crop yields by introducing Sasakawa Global 2000 technologies, using improved varieties of maize and wheat, and understanding the ideal amount of and timing for fertilizer—as well as learning to produce a high-quality product through processing and acquiring business management skill. Aster increased her farm from a plot of two hectares to four hectares. “Many of the people around me don’t have jobs and are very poor” she says, “but I am blessed; I’m busy every day.” Her plot is so large that she can no longer manage it alone. She has had to hire help. Maintaining this large scale of production demands diligence and hard work.
While her sales are not as high as before lately due to some management issues within the cooperative, the situation now seems to be improving as a result of discussions between SAA staff and cooperative members. Like many Ethiopians, her facial expressions don’t change very much even as she talks about her dream: “I’ve got a lot of hopes. But if I have to name only one: I would like to start a milling business. I think it would be good to open a mill for this community.”
Running a Dining Hall Offering Delicious, Inexpensive Meals
JICA and the SAA work together to support the women’s agro-processing cooperative in Arsi Negele. The focus has been on improving processing and packaging, as well as providing business guidance for the cooperative’s cafeteria.
Members of the agro-processing cooperative take turns running the shop and the cafeteria. Just like the cooperative in Mojo mentioned earlier, the cooperative members also gain income from the sales of their products at the shop. Meanwhile, the sales from the cafeteria are pooled together by the cooperative. At lunch time the cafeteria is often packed with government workers from the many offices in town. The food offered rivals that available at nearby hotels. In addition to serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner, the dining hall offers catering for large meetings—sometimes involving hundreds of people. The dining hall and shop pay salaries only to employees, not to cooperative members, but by driving up sales they help the agro-processing cooperative expand its capital. This allows for greater bank loans and permits the cooperative to purchase materials in bulk. The growth of the cooperative also means larger annual dividends paid to its members, which helps them to take out small loans of their own.
Sayako Tokusue, SAA program officer, says that the success stories she hears about make the job worthwhile. She gets a sense of the benefits of supporting the women’s agro-processing cooperatives when the members tell her that they’ve been able to send their kids to school; put enough food on the table; buy furniture for the first time; or purchase nice clothes for their children like the city kids wear. Tokusue is proud that “women running the shops communicate with a wide range of customers and begin to learn about the world beyond their own villages,” adding that “it’s great to hear how this interaction has boosted the women’s confidence at home and even in their community.” In the farming communities where the program is active, the SAA has become a valued friend to many.
Photographs by Hisayoshi Osawa