Planting the Seeds of Female Empowerment

ICBA and SWFF Work to Close Agricultural Gender Gap in Egypt

The women and families that make their living farming in deserts are no stranger to hardship. “In desert-based agricultural systems, climate change stress is high and water scarcity is high,” says Dr. Abdullah Al-Dakheel, Senior Fellow at the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA). SWFF innovator ICBA is a non-profit agricultural research center that focuses on salt tolerant and resilient farming solutions, and for the last 15 years they have been working to introduce resilient crops to water scarce and environmentally stressed areas in Northern Africa and Asia Minor.

In the New Valley in Egypt, this has meant introducing local rural farmers to new crops like quinoa, while also helping them produce existing crops more efficiently, such as barley and wheat. Securing Water for Food partnered with ICBA to help them produce at scale, providing support for seed production as well as finding sustainable models to increase crop adoption. From this partnership, ICBA has built facilities for seed production and handling, and developed hands-on training programs that build the farmers’ crop management skills—covering topics from pre-plating, planting, harvesting, and reaching the market to water usage and field optimization.

In three years, ICBA has had more than 1,500 farmers participate in the winter and summer growing seasons. By buying back seeds from participating farms and distributing them to new farmers, the program has scaled quickly. But, alarmingly, the program saw low participation rates among women.

Rural women are the backbone of agriculture and food security in most of the developing countries

Comprising 43 percent of the global agricultural labor force, women play a crucial part in all levels of global food production. Women being left out of agricultural advancement not only prevents them from progressing in their careers and achieving their goals, but also affects their communities. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that if women were to have the same access to resources as men, agricultural yields could increase by as much as 20-30 percent, with the potential to reduce food insecurity for an astounding 100-150 million people globally.

“Rural women are the backbone of agriculture and food security in most of the developing countries,” says Dr. Ismahane Elouafi, Director General of ICBA. “We need to create more avenues [for growth] by empowering them and providing them with equal opportunities for development.”

Female farmers received training on different uses of crops like quinoa to better utilize these new foods for family nutrition.

ICBA is working with women through specific programs that address gender inequality in science and agriculture. Tn 2017, the organization held three workshops and specialized training courses specifically for women. “In the last year, we focused on designing training that empowers the whole rural family,” says Dr. Al-Dakheel. This meant looking at where women were most involved in crop production and finding opportunities for empowerment.

Women in the New Valley were involved in crops that serve as feed for animals, program officials noted, more so than crops grown for income. These women were more focused on animal products because they greatly impact food security and nutrition for the family. The program’s trainings expanded to teach women-only classes on how to make feed more efficiently out of crops, how to process feed to last throughout the year, and how to construct small straw silos for storage.

The program also experimented with women’s trainings on nutrition. Female farmers learned about cooking hygiene, and how to use animal products to produce milk, yogurts, and cheeses. Trainings provided recipes using the new water-resilient crops like quinoa so that they could be used for feeding the family as well as providing additional income.

“The women responded really well,” says Dr. Al-Dakheel. “We were able to train over 150 women at a single training in how to make different meals, from an omelette to a dessert. It was very hands-on training, and it had a lot of participation.”

Professors and researchers from the Egyptian Centre of Excellence for Saline Agriculture, Desert Research Centre, helped conduct the trainings, utilizing the expertise of local female leadership.

The results are powerful proof of the importance of women in the agricultural chain. Families are more likely to stay engaged in the program if the mother of the family embraces it. The New Valley chapter of the National Women’s Council and the Desert Research Center have become partners in the effort as well, and are utilizing their female leadership to bring local women’s organizations into the work as well.

“Once we move into the community—once it is clear we are sincere and this is coming from the community itself—then the program is positively received, even in conservative areas.” says Dr. Al-Dakheel. “I’ve been doing work for years, but I’ve never seen such progress with women before. We have all this support, from the community, NGOs, the government. Because of this, we have progressed farther in two years, when in other places we couldn’t move it that far in 10 years.”

ICBA focuses on using high-quality, critical research to increase food and nutritional security, improve water security, and build more resilient environments and incomes in targeted marginal environments. Female leaders from ICBA suggest that science and technology hold the key to closing global gender gaps—learn more from these leaders here.