I have always believed that women should lead the world.
Men have done such a lamentable job of it over the centuries. Testosterone and ego form a powerful yet destructive cocktail that causes men to make bad decisions on a regular basis. Women, on the other hand, are, well, less reckless and more sensible. When was the last time in recent history that a female leader started a war? British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s Falklands War of 1982 is the only one that comes to mind.
A woman’s common sense is also evident when it comes to managing household finances.
According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), women’s economic participation and their ownership and control of productive assets accelerate development, help overcome poverty, reduce inequality and improve nutrition, health and children’s school attendance. Ultimately, women generally invest a higher proportion of their income in their families and communities than men.
This fact is particularly important in rural areas of the developing world where poverty is endemic. But there is a small problem: Women’s role in rural economies is typically that of agricultural labor only, and they have much less access, control and ownership of land and other productive assets compared to their male counterparts. When it comes to land — perhaps the most important economic asset — women make up just 12.8% of farm owners worldwide.
Evidence shows that if these women had the same access to productive resources as men, they could increase yields on their farms by 20-30%, increasing total agricultural production in developing countries by 2.5-4% , thereby reducing the number of hungry people in the world by up to 17 percent.
The importance of investing in women has encouraged the non-profit organization Acceso, which I founded in 2007, to seek to address this problem in a sustainable way by training and supporting women to become agricultural entrepreneurs. and creating employment opportunities for rural women. On a recent trip to Colombia and El Salvador, I witnessed how our programs prove that one of the key ingredients to poverty reduction is the empowerment of women in agriculture.
In Colombia, where 83% of rural women identify as farmers and 24% of households are headed by women, we have launched community farm training for women farmers. Not only do we teach them how to grow marketable produce, but we also train them to manage the financial aspects of farming so they can make informed economic decisions. We train 10-15 women per hectare who are mostly single mothers, many of whom have been displaced by the internal conflict that has plagued Colombia for many decades. It is important to note that once the women have completed their training, they are guided through the process of renting their own land. Acceso will then buy their products, bundle them and sell them to formal markets such as supermarkets. This removes the often insurmountable market risks they would otherwise face when trying to enter a highly volatile, low-cost informal market on their own.
I visited one of these community farms outside of Barranquilla, where 16 of these families are enrolled in our year-long Acesso training program. It is heartbreaking to see the conditions in which they live; makeshift structures made of sheet metal and tarpaulins, no utilities, no health services and not a single man to be seen anywhere. I took the opportunity to ask a few questions. They each had three to eight children, were single mothers and had lived in these conditions for almost 20 years. What is remarkable however, is their enthusiasm to complete the Acceso training program. I promised to come back next year and throw them a graduation party.
I asked them individually what this program meant to them. As with everyone I’ve spoken to in the developing world over the years, their responses were consistent: To improve the lives of their children. They also shared that the support meant everything to them since they had virtually no income or job opportunities before Acceso.
In El Salvador, where we run a state-of-the-art produce processing center in the rural highlands, 88% of our employees are women, including one manager named Maday. She told me that the idea that only men can do her job was flat out wrong. Again, the majority are single mothers with very little previous work experience. The average income of $400 per month is welcome because most of these women had no income before working with us. One of our employees, Liliana, told us that before Acceso there were no formal jobs in the area and that she lost a lot of her products trying to ship and market her products in urban centers like San Salvador. She now works at the treatment center while her sons work the land.
In 2021, Acceso developed a pilot project in the upper area of Chalatenango in partnership with UN Women to expand our network of women farmers. Under the project, women received training and technical assistance in addition to equipment (including seeds, seedlings and fertilizers) and infrastructure (irrigation equipment, water collection tanks and macro tunnels ) to improve the volume and quality of their crops. The women also received a means of transport to deliver their production to the Acceso processing center and purchase contracts allowing them to access a secure market and pay fairly for their harvests, the national supermarket chain Super Selectos being the end buyer.
Acceso and UN Women plan to extend this partnership to other departments in El Salvador. Already this year, Acceso has expanded its partnership with UN Women to provide its agtech tool “Extensio” (weather forecast, information on good agricultural practices, information on gender for women’s empowerment and pest and disease management) to its entire network of women in the country. Acceso and UN Women are also bringing this agtech partnership to Honduras and Guatemala.
While in El Salvador, I participated in a roundtable with our women agricultural workers and representatives from UN Women. Somewhat cheekily and apologizing to the male farmers present, I asked the women if they thought they were better than men at managing household finances. The women around me laughed and nodded in agreement. These gestures were enough to complete my due diligence. I have been sold.