By Haoua Sienta
This year, a new project was launched by the Gambian government to promote rural development in the country, including through the expansion of best practices in 39 districts in five regions. With the financial support of IFAD and partners, the Organizational Resilience Program for Transformative Peasant Agriculture (ROOTS) should advance SDGs 1 (no poverty), 2 (zero hunger) and 5 (gender equality) simultaneously, given the links between rural development, food security and gender.
The project has an ambitious goal of reaching 320,000 people, which represents more than 10% of the country’s population. These beneficiaries are mainly: small farmers organized in formal or informal associations (locally called kafos); young women and men aged 18 to 35, involved in agricultural and non-agricultural activities; and farmers and entrepreneurs involved in cooperatives and small and medium-sized agricultural enterprises (agri-PME) engaged in public-private producer partnership (4P) agreements for marketing and value addition. But the composition of this group is asymmetric: women represent 80%.
The reason for this asymmetry lies in the gender disparities in rural Gambia. Women’s voices are generally overtaken by their male counterparts. Managing cash income and planning how to spend it is generally considered a men’s business, which means that women often do not even have their own money and therefore have to ask or borrow from their husbands. In addition, Gambian women generally do not own the land on which they work. For example, many women farmers find it difficult to access finance because traditional banking institutions typically require land ownership to approve loans.
What these institutions may not consider is the “hidden bankability” of women. They represent around 70% of the agricultural workforce in The Gambia. Exactly because women do most of the work in the Gambian fields, they have important practical knowledge on how to best reinvest the income of their families. They assess their agricultural needs on a daily basis. Often before sunrise, women soil their boots in Gambian gardens, noting what might help improve their horticulture (a hoe? A bag of fertilizer?).
Despite the conventional cultivation of less valuable food crops – as opposed to the men who commonly manage cash crops – Gambian women are turning horticulture into a profitable activity for sustainable development. Over the past decade, at least 6,600 women have organized themselves in 33 community gardens supported by NOT MY – another government-led project funded by IFAD and finalized last year. They began to work on commercially oriented production planning based on market demand, which leads to gainful employment.
These women farmers now cultivate high-value crops that are attracting international market demand, such as chili and okra, as opposed to traditional crops that were primarily for subsistence. Evidence from NEMA indicates that “horticulture gives a higher return on investment, which means that home gardens bring more money into the pockets of beneficiaries.” In addition, the products from these gardens help to expand the availability and access to healthy and diverse food at the local level, thereby helping to improve food and nutrition security in rural communities.
These gardens provide a valuable space for mutual learning and information sharing. Unlike individual gardens, community gardens provide the ideal space for farmers to exchange ideas and teach each other good farming practices. Their members are predominantly women who, by working together, build trust and solidarity to better face their common social problems.
This way of working has led these market gardeners to set up a market information system allowing collaborative price regulation. With support from NEMA, this phone service allows farmers to share and view price information for a particular community in a particular market on a particular day. It has helped keep women abreast of market dynamics and build their marketing skills and business mindset.
Building on the legacy of NEMA, ROOTS plans to expand and continue to support the model of horticulture shaped by its predecessor. These community gardens have become a paradigm of sustainable small-scale agriculture in The Gambia and have shown A lot of advantages, such as job creation, agricultural education, empowerment of women and youth, climate resilience and food and nutrition security. ROOTS plans to modernize 40 existing gardens and develop 30 new ones.
Go beyond 80 percent
Not only do women represent 80% of the beneficiaries of the project, but many will also contribute to the implementation of its activities. ROOTS can count on the support of several collaborators such as the charismatic Kanyeleng – traditional communicators able to effectively convey messages in rural Gambia through plays, songs and dance performances.
That said, you need to take action beyond 80%, doing more than just promoting the inclusion of women. You have to change the balance between the formal and informal spheres of their life. You have to change the power relations. You must dig into and reach the root causes of gender inequalities to transform the status quo within communities and households, thus only enabling truly lasting benefits.
Investing in Gambian women farmers is an imperative step to strengthen gender equality, food and nutrition security and local economic development from one generation to the next, thereby shortening the path to SDGs 1, 2 and 5. C This is why ROOTS is committed to paying special attention to their empowerment, catalyzing their role as agents of change to cultivate local sustainable development.
The author of this guest article, Haoua Sienta, is the country director of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) for The Gambia and Guinea.