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Innovating to support women in agribusiness during the COVID-19 pandemic

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The Cultivate Africa’s Future Fund (CultiAF) is a ten-year, CA$35 million partnership (AUD$37 million) between IDRC and the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR). CultiAF funds applied research aimed at improving food security, resilience, and gender equality across Eastern and Southern Africa.

Women involved in key agricultural value chains across sub-Saharan Africa are being disproportionately affected by the economic disruptions resulting from COVID-19. To help address this gender gap, teams from Cultivate Africa’s Future Fund (CultiAF) working in animal feed, fish, and mango production are innovating to provide women with the training, processing technologies, and financial resources they need to maintain their businesses.

Processing to preserve incomes

CultiAF’s Fruit Fly and Integrated Pest Management project has been working with farmers and extension officers in Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia, and Zimbabwe since April 2019 to provide training in mango production and effective pest management strategies. Mango production has high potential for contributing to the incomes of smallholder farmers, especially for women and youth who are disproportionately impacted by unemployment and poverty. The project has therefore focused its capacity building activities towards these groups. For example, six out of 10 farmers being trained are women, as are 50% of extension officers.

However, “COVID has affected all facets of life,” explains Samira Mohamed, principal investigator for the project. The farmers can no longer access fresh produce markets, leading to significant post-harvest and income losses. “We could not sit back and watch things unfold,” Mohamed continues. The project has re-worked its capacity building activities to respond to these challenges, with a focus on using solar dryers to process fruits and vegetables. The project intends to train more than 1,000 women to use the technology because they will be more involved in the processing activities. Smallholders will also be linked with other processing, packaging, and marketing stakeholders to access new business opportunities.

Community dryers are also being used by CultiAF’s Insects for Food and Feed project to help address COVID-19-related challenges in Kenya and Uganda. The project’s activities include training farmers in the mass production and processing (by drying) of black soldier fly larvae, which is being adopted as an affordable and sustainable protein source to use in fish, pig, and poultry feed. However, due to movement restrictions in Kenya, many women producers have not been able to access the project’s communal dryer based outside of Nairobi, which is essential to preserve and store black soldier flies prior to supplying them to local feed millers. The project has therefore installed an additional dryer within the capital to help address the issue.

“From our study, we realized that women — particularly the wives of male-headed households — are highly disadvantaged. This guided our selection of participants to engage in the project’s capacity building activities,” says Chrysantus Tanga, the project lead. Thus, women farmers are also being trained in the production of feces or “frass”-based fertilizer using the black soldier fly residue generated during the larvae rearing process. The black soldier fly fertilizer is sold to local vegetable farmers to provide women with additional income under lockdown. 

Gender-inclusive financing

In Malawi, processing was already a challenge for women in the fish value chain, where effective technologies such as solar tent dryers and improved smoking kilns are beyond what they can afford. In an effort to make these technologies more accessible and to empower women to produce higher quality products and access more profitable markets, the CultiAF Fish Malawi team developed a financial solution with FDH Bank Limited. Features of the finance mechanism are a lower interest rate for women and working with processors who are organized into groups to provide social collateral.

The financial initiative was ready to be rolled out before COVID-19 hit, but then pandemic restrictions interrupted project activities, such as increasing awareness of the financing product. To continue spreading the message to women processors (and all actors of the fish value chain), the project is bringing small groups together by providing them with personal protection equipment. “The project is encouraging women to apply for the loans and as of now, we have 65 applicants, 25 of whom are women. This is a really positive development as women are usually left out,” enthuses Levison Chiwaula, principal investigator for the project.

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