A significant accomplishment of the Securing Water for Food (SWFF) Program, a worldwide effort of several government funding agencies, is improving women’s integration into agriculture in some countries. This is particularly true in India, Bangladesh, and sub-Saharan Africa, where many of the 40 innovators in the program sell transformative innovations to farmers who are struggling for more than a subsistence living.
SWFF is a combined effort of four governments, including USAID, Sweden, through the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, the Foreign Ministry of the Netherlands, and South Africa. The innovators were chosen after rigorous competition among thousands of applicants. While the ability of the innovators – in such areas as irrigation, seed development, and precise weather forecasting – to attain sustainability and expand were paramount, they were not the only criteria.
However, Dr. Ku McMahan, USAID’s team lead on the program, is quick to emphasize that there are multiple pathways to success, including raising the incomes of poor farmers and balancing gender participation.
“We want to grow subsistence farmers into better-producing farmers that can cope with life’s challenges, feed their families, and be healthy,” he says. “We work with people at the base of the pyramid where life is difficult. They don’t have a lot of money, and by their very nature, they are risk-averse.”
Many of these people are women. Often times, their husbands leave what small subsistence plots they have to venture to cities for jobs in an effort to support their families. “Creating the conditions for women to work and help support families has been a goal of SWFF,” according to McMahan.
He points to two projects in particular in Bangladesh:
We want to grow subsistence farmers into better-producing farmers that can cope with life’s challenges, feed their families, and be healthy
Lal Teer is a family-owned seed business that develops seeds to fight salinity and to increase crop yields. One of its initiatives has been women empowerment. What if, the Lal Teer leadership asked a decade ago, we could provide seeds such that each woman could grow sufficient plants around their homes to feed families and barter with neighbors. The program was launched, and success has been marked by healthier lives, educational opportunities, and more inclusion of women in farming activities.
“The women become small stakeholders,” said Tajwar Awol, a technical director, and business development officer who has been active in the company’s corporate social activism profile. “They can even provide family money by selling products at the market.”
The seeds are distributed two ways – either a few seeds in small packets for family use or multiple seeds of the same variety in a larger packet for selling vegetables at the market. “We are still trying to assess the total impact,” said Tajwar Awol. “We know that it has empowered women to become more prominent in society.”
Lal Teer gets the word out about advances in its seeds and overall best practice farming through various extension programs. The company’s outreach to women was helped by piggy-backing with a previous USAID project called “Info Lady,” in which trained women would go into rural areas on bicycles. They would advise other village women on numerous health initiatives, even hooking them up with doctors by email or telephone.
“We began using that platform with our seed distribution outreach to women,” said Awol. “We gave them new training, new bicycles, and they would go house to house teaching basic crop development.
“Our vice-chairmen, my mother Nasreen Awal, is president of the Women Entrepreneurship Association of Bangladesh, and she has been extremely helpful in getting more women involved,” said Awol. “The only way we can alleviate poverty is at the grassroots level, helping farmers help themselves.”
Awol added that Lal Teer doesn’t simply look at the bottom line.
“We’re good business people, but we don’t just look at making a profit,” he said. “We also consider the social aspect. Fighting for our country is our first priority. This means giving farmers the tools, in this case, the seeds to fight salinity to grow healthy crops so they can afford to continue as farmers and not flock to urban areas.”
Also active in Bangladesh, Practical Action has one of the more unique innovations in the SWFF program – Pumpkins Against Poverty.
A few years ago, Nazmul Chowdhury, a specialist at the time with Practical Action, looked out over the barren sandbars left by the monsoon rains and had an idea. “Couldn’t these vast islands of silt be used to plant crops,” he wondered. The low-income families in the region didn’t have sufficient funds to even send their children to school. Their homes were often flooded during monsoon season.
Chowdhury took his idea to his local supervisor, who, in essence, told him he was crazy – that no plant could grow on a sandbar. Chowdhury persisted, and the result was fields of nutritious pumpkins leading to the emergence of a marketable industry. “While most of the men still held jobs in cities, it was left to the women in the area to plant the burlap bags of several pumpkin seeds and compost,” says Chowdhury.
Now, each season the sandbars are dotted with pumpkins, and the local population has also developed other crops, such as squash, through this process. “Children are now being sent to school,” says Chowdhury, who is proud of his discovery, and has now begun his own business in the pumpkin industry called “Pumpkins Plus.”
USAID, Sweden through the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida), and the Governments of The Netherlands and South Africa invested $34 million in Securing Water for Food (SWFF) to promote science and technology solutions that enable the production of more food with less water and/or make more water available for food production, processing, and distribution.
This story was developed through the SWFF Social Impact Storytelling Initiative which was established to document innovator journeys and social impact as they work to improve the way water is being used for agriculture. #socialimpact #innovation #agriculture #water