Since the onset of COVID-19, existing inequalities have worsened as already vulnerable and marginalized groups face additional challenges and further restrictions on access to services and opportunities.
Women are one such group who, despite making up 50 to 75% of the African workforce, are underrepresented and whose needs are not adequately met.
Amid these challenging times and prevailing inequalities, the CultiAF (Cultivate Africa’s Future) initiative, jointly funded by the Canadian International Development Research Center (IDRC) and the Australian Center for International Agricultural Research, has worked to put equality at the forefront of agricultural research move forward and achieve a food secure future in Africa while innovating funding mechanisms for the benefit and empowerment of women.
In Kenya and Uganda, the Pre-Cooked Bean Initiative is working hard to eradicate gender inequality in their value chain and in their communities. One of their initiatives in Uganda is to develop a digital framework through which farmers are paid directly for their products.
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This ensures that all of the money that women farmers make is received directly from them. This system enables women, as autonomous entrepreneurs, to register their companies themselves and access their profits independently in order to decide for themselves how they use the money they have earned.
One such beneficiary is Nalongo Nabukeera Mary, a small farmer in Uganda and mother of eight children. Through this project, Mary began breeding improved varieties of beans supplied by CultiAF, which resulted in huge improvements in her productivity. As a member of the farmers group, Mary opened an account with the Masaka Microfinance Development Cooperative Trust.
She used the loan she acquired and which has since paid off in full to diversify her business and pay school fees for her children. “My family has managed to improve our production and consumption of beans that are high in iron and zinc, which has provided us with food, nutrition and an income,” she enthuses.
In Malawi, the CultiAF project enables women to benefit from improved methods of processing fish that are more environmentally friendly, more effective and more profitable than traditional methods.
However, these technologies can only be fully exploited if women have access to finance. To meet this challenge, the project has formed an innovative partnership with FDH Bank, a private commercial bank, to provide loans to fish processors. As part of the project’s gender empowerment strategy, women fish processors will receive a preferential reduced rate.
So far, 19.6 million MK (CAD 31,893 / CAD 32,564) have been distributed among six fish processors, three of whom are women who have built six solar dryers, five smoke ovens and two warehouses.
One such beneficiary is Atusaye Msiska, 28, who has successfully accessed MK 2.9 million (CAD 4,740 / AUD 4,815) funding in materials that enabled her to build a solar tent dryer, fish smoke oven and to build a covered oven fish processing shelter.
Atusaye can now fry or cook the fish they buy without fear of bad weather, and protection from flies and contamination has improved the quality and shelf life of their products. “If the business environment is good and demand is high, I make a profit margin of MK50,000 (CAD 81 / AUD 83) per week. With this profit I can look after my child and buy the essentials for the household, ”explains Atusaye.
In addition, Atusaye uses the loan money to pay tuition and housing fees for a graduate course at the local college.
The loan to Atusaye and others like her has improved the productivity and success of women in the fish value chain, demonstrating their viability as entrepreneurs and stakeholders.
The success of the initiative will also show the bank and others that women can reliably repay their loans in order to give more women better access to finance in the future.
Santiago Alba Corral, director of IDRC’s Climate Resilient Food Systems Program, believes that integrating gender equality at the core of a project, society or community is critical to building resilience to even the biggest pandemic of the century The potential of gender transformative research was already part of the design of CultiAF and actually helped us absorb some of the COVID shock within the projects, as every single initiative already had a gender framework as part of their approach, ”he said.
As International Women’s Day is celebrated in 2021, the far-reaching effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are yet to be seen, but it is clear that the pandemic has made inequality more visible for everyone, explains Edidah Lubega Ampaire, CultiAF Senior Program Specialist.
“The past year has shown that situations affect men and women differently. Now nobody can argue that the gender inequality we have been working on does not exist.” She adds that it is important that we now use this heightened awareness to “gather alliances and partnerships and take action to eradicate inequalities”.