By Haoua Sienta

This year a new project was launched by the Government of The Gambia to promote rural development in the country, including through the expansion of best practices in 39 districts of five regions. With financial support by IFAD and partners, the Resilience of Organizations for Transformative Smallholder Agriculture Programme (ROOTS) is expected to advance SDG 1 (no poverty), 2 (zero hunger) and 5 (gender equality) simultaneously, given the linkages between rural development, food security and gender.

The project has an ambitious target of reaching 320,000 people, which represents more than 10% of the country’s population. These beneficiaries are primarily: smallholder farmers organized in formal or informal associations (locally known as kafos); female and male youth from 18 to 35 years old, involved in farming and off-farm activities; and farmers and entrepreneurs involved in cooperatives and agricultural small- and medium-sized enterprises (agri-SMEs) engaged in Public-Private Producers’ Partnerships (4P) arrangements for commercialization and value addition. But the make-up of this group is asymmetrical: women account for 80%.

The reason behind this asymmetry lies at the gender gaps in the rural Gambia. Women’s voices are usually outweighed by their male counterparts. Dealing with cash earnings and planning how to spend them are customarily considered men’s matters, meaning that women often don’t even have their own money and thus have to ask for or borrow from their husbands. In addition, women in The Gambia commonly do not own the lands where they work. Thus, many female farmers struggle to access finance because traditional banking institutions generally require estate property to approve loans.

What these institutions may be not considering is women’s ‘hidden bankability.’ They represent about 70% of the agricultural workforce in The Gambia. Exactly because women carry out most of the labor in Gambian fields, they have significant practical knowledge about how to better reinvest their families’ incomes. They are assessing their farming needs on a daily basis. Often before sunrise, women are muddying their boots throughout Gambian gardens, noting what could help improve their horticulture (a hoe? a bag of fertilizer?).

Despite conventionally growing lower-value subsistence crops – as opposed to men who commonly manage cash crops –, Gambian women are transforming horticulture into a profitable business at the service of sustainable development. Over the past decade, at least 6,600 women have organized themselves in 33 community gardens supported by NEMA – another government-led project funded by IFAD and finalized last year. They have started working on a commercially-inclined production planning based on market demand, which is driving to gainful employment.

These women farmers are now growing high value crops that attract international market demand such as chill pepper and okra as opposed to the traditional crops that were mainly for subsistence. Evidence from NEMA indicates that “horticulture gives a higher return per investment meaning that the vegetable gardens bring more money in the pockets of the beneficiaries.” In addition, these gardens’ produce help enlarge the availability of and access to healthy and diverse food at local level, which thus contributes to improving food and nutrition security across rural communities.

These gardens offer a valuable space for mutual learning and information sharing. Unlike individual gardens, community ones offer farmers the ideal space to exchange ideas and teach farming good practices one another. Their members are mostly women who, by working together, build trust and solidarity to better face their common social issues.

This way of work led these vegetable growers to establish a market information system that allows for a collaborative price regulation. With NEMA support, this telephone-based service enables farmers to share and consult information about the price of a particular community at a particular market on a particular day. It has contributed to keeping women abreast of market dynamics and strengthening their marketing skills and commercial mindset. 

Building on NEMA’s legacy, ROOTS plans to expand and give continued support to 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 many benefits, such as job creation, farming education, women’s and youth empowerment, climate resilience and food and nutrition security. ROOTS plans to upgrade 40 existing gardens and develop 30 new ones.

Going Beyond the 80 Percent

Not only women account for 80% of the project’s beneficiaries, but many will also help implement its activities. ROOTS will count on the support from several female staff and collaborators such as the charismatic Kanyelengs – traditional communicators who can effectively convey messages in the rural Gambia through drama, songs and dancing performances.

All that said, you must act beyond the 80%, doing more than just promoting women’s inclusion. You need to change the balance across both formal and informal spheres of their lives. You need to change the power relations. You need to dig and reach the root causes of gender inequalities to transform the status quo within communities and households, only hence enabling truly long-lasting benefits.

Investing in Gambian women farmers represents an imperative step to boost gender equality, food and nutrition security, and local economic development from one generation to another, shortening the path towards SDGs 1, 2 and 5. This is why ROOTS has committed to put special attention on their empowerment, catalyzing their role of agents of change to cultivate local sustainable development.

The author of this guest article, Haoua Sienta, is the International Fund for Agricultural Development’s (IFAD) Country Director for The Gambia and Guinea.