Learning from COVID-19
By Cristina Manfre, Global Gender Director, TechnoServe
While the Covid-19 pandemic has represented an enormous setback in the economic fortunes and living standards for many people across the world, we’ve seen that women have suffered a disproportionate share of the impact. Globally, women are more likely than men to have reduced their hours worked, lost their jobs, seen their businesses close, and fallen into extreme poverty.
As discouraging as this phenomenon is, we know that it isn’t specific to Covid-19: Longstanding inequities mean that women farmers and entrepreneurs are more vulnerable to suffering lasting impacts to their livelihoods and quality of life during a crisis. Research in Uganda and Bangladesh, for example, found that in many crises, ranging from food-price spikes to family illnesses, women’s assets were often the first to be sold.
So as we start to embark on the recovery from Covid-19, what can we learn from the crisis about helping women farmers and entrepreneurs boost their resilience? At TechnoServe, a non-profit organization working in 28 countries across Latin America, Africa, and South Asia, we’ve identified several urgent tasks for the private sector, governments, civil society, and other organizations during the post-Covid recovery.
Improve access to savings, credit, and other assets
During any kind of crisis, having access to savings or loans can make the difference in being able to feed, clothe, and educate families without selling important assets like land. In surveys TechnoServe carried out across 10 countries, about one out of three smallholder farmers dipped into savings to help sustain their families during the pandemic.
But around the world, access to savings, loans, and grants is unequal. Among those living on below $2 per day, women are 28 per cent less likely than men to have a bank account, and data from developing countries show that women are also less likely to save. It’s important therefore to improve women’s ability to put money away and access financial services.
Kenya, the mSPARK program – launched by TechnoServe and the Mastercard Foundation – shows how technology can improve access to financial services. It is helping more than 30,000 entrepreneurs access repayable grants and training through their smartphones or basic feature phones, and 72 per cent of the participants are women.
Nairobi shopkeeper Jacinta Musyoka’s business, for example, was struggling in the wake of Covid-19 until she received a $182 loan through the mSPARK program. With the loan, Jacinta was able to pay rent and restock her store. “Business is now good since my customers are back,” she says. “My customers are paying off what they owe me, so I can keep supplying them. The loan has really helped my customers and me.”
Alternative institutions to encourage savings also have an important role to play in environments where access to traditional financial institutions is limited. In rural Peru, the Coffee Alliance for Excellence – a public-private partnership with the U.S. Agency for International Development, global coffee roaster JDE, and coffee exporter Perhusa – is helping women farmers organize and join credit and savings unions (UNICAs for their initials in Spanish), which pool savings and distribute loans to members.
Access to productive assets like land is another tool for navigating a crisis: Such assets provide an element of income stability, serve as collateral to access financing, and make it easier to recover from a crisis. But these assets are not distributed equally: Globally, women own just 15 percent of privately held agricultural land, and we know that women’s assets are more likely to be sold than men’s in times of crisis. Following this crisis, it will be important to work with civil society and governments at all levels to ensure that women have legal title to land and other assets.
Strengthen women’s role in cooperatives and farmer businesses
In most countries, women are less likely than men to be members and leaders of cooperatives and farmer businesses. In Ethiopia, for example, men are six times more likely to belong to a cooperative than women. Among individuals who do join a cooperative, men are five times more likely to rise to a leadership position.
This puts women at a critical disadvantage during times of crisis, as membership improves access to credit, services, and markets – which is especially important when these are disrupted. To address this, it’s critical to engage organizations to explain the benefits of adding more women members, as well as engage women to explain the benefits of joining such organizations.
In India, TechnoServe and Visa are partnering on the PRAKRITI program, which is strengthening farmer producer organizations (FPOs), building the business skills of women smallholder farmers, and training the groups’ leadership teams on the importance of inclusion. As a result, the number of women shareholders has increased by more than three thousand per cent.
This has proved to be particularly important during the Covid-19 crisis. When Anita Patel needed oilcake to feed her cattle, she found that Covid travel restrictions made it prohibitively expensive to transport them from the market to her farm. However, by purchasing the oilcakes through her FPO, which organized transportation for its members, she saved 1,000 rupees, equal to the average total monthly savings for a rural household in her state of Madhya Pradesh. She received the oilcakes right at her doorstep, saving her time, as well.
Ensure greater equality in household decision-making
The crisis has also highlighted the importance of fostering more equal and collaborative decision-making within families. When men and women make decisions together, they can arrive upon coping strategies that address the needs of everyone and distribute domestic tasks in an equitable way that allows everyone to contribute to household incomes. According to an Afrobarometer survey, however, women in 39 African countries were twice as likely as men to report that they had no role in making their families’ financial decisions. Addressing this challenge means engaging families directly and helping both men and women understand why joint decision-making is so important.
In Benin, the BeninCajù program – a partnership between TechnoServe and the U.S. Department of Agriculture – incorporated modules on family decision making in its work with cashew farmers, entrepreneurs processing cashew apples, and workers at cashew plants. The result has been greater communication and cooperation in families. “Before [the program], I hid my real income from my husband because he wanted to dispose of it and decide,” recalled one cashew apple processor. Another woman working in the sector added, “The project has empowered us. We have freely acquired our income through our work, so we freely decide on the use, and especially as we invest in the home, men no longer oppose our decision-making.”
We don’t know if the next crisis affecting a given community will be related to climate change, political unrest, an economic depression, or another epidemic. But what we’ve seen clearly with Covid-19 is that crises are multi-dimensional and complex: What started as a disease epidemic resulted in the greatest global economic crisis since World War II.
That’s why broad-based and equitable resiliency is so important. If we work together to apply these lessons from the pandemic, we can help ensure that women farmers and entrepreneurs build this resiliency in time for the next crisis.