Women's struggle in food value chains

Women are structurally disadvantaged at the various stages of the dairy value chain. Although positive stories are emerging, more efforts are needed. Yet this is not a women’s struggle alone; involving men in consultation processes and implementation is crucial.

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    Women in sub-Saharan Africa play a key role in informal and formal stages of food value chains, including as producers, processors, traders and consumers.

    At the same time, fostering food value chains has become both a priority and a challenge for many stakeholders in Africa, including regional and national policy makers, donors and private sector actors such as farmers’ organisations. This is important in the broader context of economic transformation and the need to create more and better jobs – with a particular focus on women and youth.

    To be efficient, any intervention affecting food value chains should look at the link between more productive and efficient value chains, and gender equality. These two aspects are traditionally dealt with in silos. The following example of the Kenyan dairy value chains shows well how to better link the aforementioned dimensions.

    Challenges for women in the dairy value chain

    Milk consumption in Kenya has increased considerably in recent years. This has led to new employment and income generating business opportunities along the dairy value chain. This process, also known as dairy intensification, involves new practices such as the introduction of high-yielding cows, complementary feed production and feeding strategies, such as improved fodder and better disease control. These practices require appropriate access to finance, complex technical knowledge, and better extension and veterinary services.

    This in turn may offer different challenges and opportunities for men and women, since they do not have the same access to resources. It also implies a potential shift in traditional gender roles at the household and the market levels. For example, women’s access to credit from formal financial institutions is much lower than men’s, pushing them to look for unreliable and inadequate sources of funding, such as friends and family. As a result, women micro-businesses tend to operate in the informal sector, using low-level technologies and limited information. They thus stay behind, stuck in their traditional, less profitable roles in the production node of value chains.

    In the context of intensification and commercialisation of dairy, a recent FAO study shows that even in the case where women are hired workers, their workload increases as they are often assigned a supervisory role that requires constant presence at the farm to guide the often unreliable male farm workers (Katothya, 2017). Investing in labour-saving technologies such as piped water, milking and fodder processing machinery is critical for female farmers, not only in easing their work, but also attracting farm workers. Women from commercialised systems also provide more labour than those from non-commercialised households. Therefore, intensification and commercialisation of dairy increase women’s workloads and require them to spend dairy income on new tools and practices instead of on food and household wellbeing. At the same time, dairy processors offer less employment to women, as they employ mostly men. This all illustrates that, without gender-sensitive accompanying measures, the dairy value chain development may actually undermine women’s empowerment.

    Positive stories

    When dairy development programmes effectively target women, results show that women are more willing to switch to sustainable management practices and to find effective solutions to constraints they typically face, such as renting land for producing more fodder varieties. Recently, a number of gender-sensitive extension services have emerged in Kenya, initiated by government-related organisations or development partners. For instance, the Kenya Women’s Veterinary Association has worked together with the government to build the capacity of women in livestock and disease management. It has improved women’s capacity to control certain cattle diseases through the formation of women groups. However, in most cases positive gender transformative programmes emerge from funding agencies, rather than from grassroots initiatives or from the local private sector (Gallina, 2016).

    Modernising the dairy value chain generates both positive and negative impacts on the role of women, the resources they control and their decision-making power. This in turn can affect the household income and power relations, nutrition levels and investment in education. Close monitoring of value chain programmes to avoid unintended negative effects on the household economy and nutrition is therefore important.

    Towards gender sensitive development of value chains

    To achieve the modernisation and sustainable development of value chains while ensuring gender equality and women’s empowerment, three points should be taken into account:

    1. It is not a women’s struggle alone; any development intervention aiming to improve the livelihoods of economic actors along value chains, needs to consider the local political, socio-economic and cultural dynamics to offer equal opportunities, rights and responsibilities to women and men. Therefore, involving both women and men appropriately in consultation, design and monitoring processes is crucial.
    2. Power relations between men and women are often aggravated by other socio-cultural factors, such as age, being a migrant, being part of an ethnic minority or being handicapped. All these factors will influence access to information, finance, skills and education, communication technology, social and business networks, hard and soft infrastructures. Therefore, an integrated gender approach is needed.
    3. More gender-disaggregated data to inform stakeholders of the appropriateness of applying a gender-sensitive lens and accompanying measures (for both men and women) in their value chains interventions is needed. Such data coupled with an understanding of the cultural, socio-economic and political context allows designing context-specific and innovative responses, such as the redesign of credit instruments or financial services.

    ECDPM will support these efforts and will keep working on gender-related issues, with a view to provide independent policy analysis, advice and dialogue facilitation.


    Gallina A. 2016. Gender dynamics in dairy production in Kenya: A literature review. CCAFS Working Paper No. 182. CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS). Copenhagen, Denmark. Available online at: www.ccafs.cgiar.org.

    Gnisci, D. 2016. Women’s Roles in the West African Food System: Implications and Prospects for Food Security and Resilience. West African Papers, No. 03, OECD Publishing, Paris. http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/5jlpl4mh1hxn-en.

    Katothya, G. 2017. Gender assessment of dairy value chains: evidence from Kenya. Rome, FAO.

    About the authors
    Dr Hanne Knaepen is Policy Officer of the Economic and Agricultural Transformation Programme at ECDPM. Karim Karaki is Policy Officer of the Economic and Agricultural Transformation Programme at ECDPM.

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    She drives change – Volume 6, Issue 2 (May/June 2017)
    This issue of GREAT Insights brings together many perspectives and insights on the varied and innovative approaches related to gender equality.
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