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Levelling The Playing field for Women in Farming


Q&A with Julie Greene, Chief Sustainability Officer, Olam Group and Olam Agri

Julie Greene, Chief Sustainability Officer, Olam Group and Olam Agri with a coffee farmer at the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2018

The United Nations International Day of Rural Women is dedicated to recognising the achievements of the millions of women living and working in remote, rural communities, and the impact they have on rural development and agriculture.

In 2021, Olam supported 127,300 women farmers to access economic opportunities1. We work to empower these women to build a brighter future for themselves, their families and communities.

We sat down with Chief Sustainability Officer of Olam Group and Olam Agri, Julie Greene, to discuss the importance of women in farming, and how Olam Agri is helping to support these women to unlock their full potential. 

Why is it so important to support the role of rural women in farming?

Women play a critical role in rural farming. Globally, almost 40% of all farmers are women. In some parts of Africa and Asia, it’s as high as 60%. These women are hard workers, typically putting in 12-13 more hours a week than their male counterparts2.

Despite this, women farmers have access to far fewer resources than their male counterparts. Closing this resource gap is essential if we are to meet the needs of a growing global population. The United Nations estimated, back in 2011, that providing equal access to agricultural resources would boost yields on women’s farms by 20-30% and overall production by 2.5-4% in developing countries3. This would reduce the number of undernourished people globally by 100-150 million. At a time when hunger is on the rise, it’s more important than ever that we take steps to close the gap.  

Why is it important for Olam Agri to address the role of women in farming?

As a business, we have huge potential to drive inclusive growth and break the perpetual cycle of low productivity traps. We are committed to reducing social inequities for women, youth and marginalised groups in the places where we operate.

We do this by working closely with local authorities, NGOs and other partner organisations to provide the opportunities that many women cannot access themselves – primarily through training, skills development and providing access to finance, markets and information.

We provide trainings for women in high-impact areas focused on increased productivity through Good Agricultural Practices (GAP), conservation, good soil and good water practices, labour rights and occupational safety. In 2021 alone, we also facilitated access to healthcare for more than 37,000 people through our Olam Agri operations in Chad, Republic of Congo, Côte d'Ivoire, and Togo as well as provided access to clean water and nutrition training in these same countries, along with India and Nigeria. These actions help to reduce the burden of care work which further constrains women’s economic and social participation in many contexts.

How do farming communities benefit when women are empowered? Can you share an example?

We ran a programme to train women to become professional tractor drivers on our estates in Zambia, where 8 out of 10 women depend on the farming sector. The women drivers in the programme experienced significantly improved economic autonomy and decision-making in their households and communities. The ripple effect on the wider community was powerful. Young girls, many for the first time, had role models of financially independent women to look up to. They saw driving tractors as a way to finance higher education, and 98% of the community members interviewed said they would allow their daughters to become drivers4.

What is a key challenge that must be addressed to unlock opportunities for women farmers?

The main challenge women face is a lack of opportunity and access, particularly in critical areas such as land ownership.

Less than 20% of landholders worldwide are female5. The lack of physical ownership means women rarely have ownership of the decision-making processes associated with running a farm, such as which crops to grow, how much land to dedicate to each crop, or how to manage the income that the crops generate.

Initiatives such as our Village Savings and Loan Associations are a way of tackling this in a community-led way. In Côte d'Ivoire, for example, I’ve seen how these associations have helped women start their own businesses including restaurants, vegetable gardens or their own cotton-growing operations.

To-date, we have engaged over 5,800 women in associations and these groups have financed more than 5,000 income-generating activities. We are even seeing new associations springing up amongst men, or in mixed groups, without our involvement, which means the ideas are taking root and are sustainable. 

How important is financial literacy for women in farming, and what is Olam Agri doing about this?

Access to finance is closely linked to limited land ownership and education. Fewer women own land, and those that do tend to own smaller plots than male farmers. Without collateral, it is hard to secure financing. Without literacy and numeracy skills, it’s hard to know how much financing is needed, or what the terms of a loan might be. The lack of access to education and training compounds this issue.

One way we’ve equipped farmers with business skills is through Farmer Business School trainings, which we first started to use in partnership with the German development agency, GIZ. In many crops, farmers get paid at harvest once or twice a year, but their earnings need to last all year to support their families.  The five-day programme teaches farmers how to manage their money as well as their family budgets. When we first started there were no women farmers in the programme; today we have since reached hundreds of women farmers and equipped them with financial literacy skills.

What has been the impact of these efforts?

It is fulfilling to witness the playing field levelling out for women. I enjoy hearing women’s voices and seeing the evolution from sitting quietly in the back rows to being active participants in conversations. They’ve gone from worrying about being disruptive – whether to marriages or communities– to having the confidence to speak and to participate equally.

By enabling access to knowledge and opportunities, we’re helping to replace the systems that perpetuate inequality with a virtuous cycle of improved life outcomes for rural women and their families.

International Day of Rural Women is on 15th October. You can learn more about it here.