Challenges & opportunities for women’s economic empowerment in agriculture


Over the past several years, there has been increasing evidence regarding the importance of women’s economic participation, both for the advancement of women’s rights and gender equality, as well as for the economic well-being of families, communities, sectors and nations. Advancing women’s political participation, leadership and economic empowerment is central to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Women have a critical role to play in all of the SDGs, with many targets specifically recognising women’s equality and empowerment as both the objective and part of the solution. SDG5 is known as the stand-alone gender goal because it is dedicated to achieving these goals.

As Global Manager of SNV’s Enhancing Opportunities for Women’s Enterprises (EOWE) programme (funded by the Dutch government as part of the Funding Leadership and Opportunities for Women (FLOW) funding stream), I participated in the Women’s Economic Empowerment Global Learning Forum (WEE Forum) organised by the SEEP Network from 23-25 May 2017 in Bangkok. SNV’s EOWE programme aims to advance women’s economic participation and self-reliance in Kenya and Vietnam by creating a conducive environment for female entrepreneurship as a vehicle of change.

The intervention strategy of the programme builds on the Balancing Benefits framework which is developed by SNV as a gender-transformative, integrated fourfold approach which stimulates household and community dialogue to challenge gender norms that shape resource allocation patterns. Men are engaged in the dialogues too, and role models and community influencers are identified to act as change agents. SNV’s objective is to grow women's enterprise's viability and profitability, while encouraging more women to start agribusinesses. SNV strengthens women's leadership and voice in organisations and institutions that govern markets and businesses. When women have decision making opportunities and power, they can challenge the structural barriers that cause inequalities, can advocate for better business terms and services and can claim market share. SNV is supporting the improvement of markets and governance in favour of equitable opportunities for women.

In a globalised world, as people become more integrated into markets, it is essential to not just produce, but also sell. And to do so, it is increasingly necessary to market products. Markets are widely recognised as a key component of development. Many governments and international donors now embrace the need to enable producers to take advantage of and even create business opportunities, but in a responsible and sustainable way. For example, the concept of “making markets work for the poor” is a way to bring the benefits of economic growth to poorer parts of society and often women constitute the majority of the poor. The intervention strategy of the EOWE programme builds on the Balancing Benefits framework by developing capacities at different levels (individual, business entities and institutions) in order to create a holistic approach leading to women’s increased economic participation and self-reliance. 

We need to shift away from the traditional emphasis on economically “empowering” women exclusively through micro-loans or grants, training programmes or networking and mentorship. These interventions are important (and comparatively easy to implement), but they are limited in their power to shape broader institutions and can only get us so far. We need to turn our attention to the larger environment where economic opportunities unfold – examine and correct pervasive gender biases in organisations and alter service provision so that it is not biased against women. The assumption that services, especially productive ones, are gender neutral and not gender biased is wrong, but so far this has been largely overlooked in both development research and practice.


Gender biases pervade the design and delivery of extension services, banking products, land, housing, and much more. Ensuring women’s access to productive resources does not seem to be enough. Even when access was guaranteed, women farmers often benefit less than men farmers from extension advice, suggesting that the delivery of these services is better attuned to the needs of male farmers.


To make the shift away from “gender neutral” (but really gender blind) service provision, companies not already doing so need to disaggregate client data by sex, so that they can identify and differentiate women’s market segments. Only then can organisations begin to understand women’s specific needs and constraints, whether they’re seeking access to farm equipment or financial services, and design and deliver products accordingly.


Given women’s existing levels of participation in value chains and the constraints under which they participate, understanding and responding appropriately to the social and economic contexts within which women engage in production, processing and/or sales are thus central to achieving rural agricultural value chain related goals.


As such, programmes should include approaches that start from a careful understanding of these contexts, and either 1) work within these contexts to improve how women are included, or 2) seek to improve the equity of the social and institutional environments in which value chains function to enhance the range and quality of choices and outcomes women and men have within them. Programmes operate along a continuum of gender integration approaches, from the accommodating to the transformative, and will contribute to understanding under what conditions each approach has the potential to enhance value chain performance and the outcomes of women and other marginalized groups.


Gender differences in roles and resources in agricultural production and in women’s and men’s participation in household decision-making around resource allocation, technology adoption, marketing and food consumption are relevant, though likely in different ways, across the different value chain sites. These differences imply that in order to achieve its expected outcomes, investments are to be made to understand these gender differences, their causes and their consequences.


By applying the different components of the SNV Balancing Benefits framework in the EOWE programme, we hope to advance women’s economic participation and self-reliance in the areas our programme operates, so as to create a conducive environment for female entrepreneurship as a vehicle of change.