In Uganda, rural women entrepreneurs are escaping poverty with teamwork and training
Chia seed farming has proved a niche in which women can gain financial and personal empowerment – but they need help.
“If you have business and you have your own money you don’t suffer in your life. I can take my children to school, buy medicine when they are sick. I don’t depend entirely on my husband. I am even saving money.”
These are the words of Ayilo, a woman entrepreneur in the Kiryandongo District in Western Uganda. Her story reveals the inequality experienced by rural women in Uganda – unequal access to finance, land, markets and negotiating prices for their produce. But it also shows there is a way out of this trap.
“I started by growing maize but everyone around was also growing maize.
“Men were selling a lot more maize than us women: men own land, women can only rent land. Men negotiate better when they travel far to look for markets, we women stay at home while looking after our children and we lack access to markets for our produce. I had to move from maize to chia because chia business is more profitable.”
The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization states: “Women play a vital role in Uganda’s rural agricultural sector and contribute a higher-than-average share of crop labour in the region. A higher proportion of women than men work in farming – 76% versus 62%. Yet compared to men, their productivity is low.”
We visited Kiryandongo District in north-western Uganda and were very much impressed with the rural women entrepreneurs growing tobacco, maize, sunflower and chia. Unlike tobacco and maize, which are mass-produced, the chia business is a niche that has gained momentum among women farmers. We wanted to know more about the entrepreneurial journeys of women in this trade.
The start-up struggle
When we spoke to a group a of women in the chia business, they provided us with striking stories about the challenges they faced. For a start, they had to overcome gender biases in local traditions before they could access farmland to grow chia and capital to buy seeds and equipment.
Consider the case of Apiole, who is married with seven children. Her breakthrough came when her husband allowed her to start growing chia seeds on the family farm after a local village savings group had agreed to lend her money at very low interest.
When asked why she was unable to access land and capital independently of her husband she said: “It is very hard for a woman to get a loan because I don’t have a house or land as collateral. The house and land belongs to my husband. Some of us women need bigger loans but it is very hard to get a loan unless you go to microfinance with your husband to sign.”
Then the women also face the same challenges as food crop businesses of all sizes everywhere in Uganda. Adubango said: “The biggest challenge I face is weather.”
The women also suffer from a lack of basic book-keeping knowledge. For Ayia, “we need to know whether our business is profitable and how to calculate our basic costs from the product and access to markets for our produce”.
Even women who have received training may find it hard to reach markets for their products. Mena said: “We did very well at first and felt proud because we made money. Many women are looking for new opportunities to offer possible ways out of poverty, hence training adds value to a woman’s life. But, when you train someone and there is no market, then what can the farmer do?”
It is very hard for a woman to get a loan
The answer to Mena’s question lies in overcoming gender biases. For rural women in Uganda one solution is to take matters into their own hands. Apiole said: “Five of us came together to run our chia seed business in a group. We grow chia seed twice a year once the weather is favourable. We negotiate group discounts and sell at a lower cost as a group.”
Buyers of chia seeds from the larger cities travel around the countryside or sit in a rural ‘bulking station’ waiting for farmers to arrive with their crops. For individual women in the chia business, the effort and cost of transporting their produce to bulking stations means that their best shot is to wait and sell to those buyers who travel near where the women live. This means they sell at whatever price is on offer by these middlemen. Forming groups allow them to share the costs of transport to the bulking stations or to the city, where they can sell at semi-wholesale prices.
As a group, the women feel that they have a stronger voice when they work to overcome the inequalities in accessing markets. The group means that the chia business is lucrative for the women. When we visited the five women in Apiole’s group they had six bags of chia seed, each weighing 100 kilograms. When sold the revenue generated was US$750, giving each woman US$150, just in one season. This is a reasonable revenue in Uganda, where the average wage for a rural woman can be as low as US$40 per month and 42%of rural women are unpaid family workers.
Like many entrepreneurs, the five found that business success is not guaranteed. But it does offer a possible pathway out of poverty, and they seem to be happy about this.
Working as a group does not solve all their problems, however. A recent study found that though farmer groups in Uganda are linking their members to markets, enhancing their business skills and enabling access to services, male farmers significantly benefit, compared to women.
In 2019, the Lwannunda Community Development Initiatives, a local NGO co-founded by Sylvia, one of the authors of this article, implemented a training programme for rural women’s businesses in Uganda, with funding from the development organisation Harambee Africa. Jackie, who works with the Lwannunda Community Development Initiatives, told Sylvia that “over 500 women from the Masaka district have received training”.
The women learned the basics of business planning, financial management and marketing techniques so as to improve their awareness, perception, authority, equality and independent decision-making – factors that are associated with perceived emancipation for women who want to improve their business performance.
Training enables self-discovery for the women. Apiole said: “The training in business added on my skills in administration and business planning. My children previously assisted me with daily book-keeping. That’s why it is good to educate your children.” For her, the first years must have been a struggle, relying on whatever help she could find, informally, to maintain a proper record for her business and plan ahead. Now, “I am able to look after myself, I don’t depend on my husband because the chia business is very profitable,” she says.
Another woman, Ayilo, explained that the training “gave me vision. I am able to keep records for my business, I got more ideas to run my business, my children helped me to record all my sales and profits. After the training everything changed because I was giving more care to my customers. This has given me motivation to grow more chia and to work as a group because we can negotiate in a group.”
Access to resources alone is not sufficient to run a business. Entrepreneurs also need personal abilities and interests that they discover through self-assessment and informal mentorship by peers and family. Through the Makerere University Business School’s incubator Sarah, the other author of this article, advises the women in Kiryandongo to explore their natural gifts, such as being able to speak confidently when negotiating with customers and suppliers. The self-discovery helps them start a line of business where they have competence and high motivation. Women with interest in nutrition, for instance, often venture into agriculture to plant seeds and food crops.
The way forward
It is not entirely surprising that entrepreneurship training is having a positive influence on women in the chia business. Studies have shown positive impacts of training on rural women entrepreneurs in Uganda, when measured in terms of their knowledge and decision-making around finance, business management, marketing and networking. But training on its own does not address the gender biases that the women face.
Sylvia has been helping women in the chia businesses with access to markets through linking them with Self Help Africa, a charity based in Ireland. Recently, Self Help Africa partnered with TruTrade Uganda to provide smallholders with a reliable route to market and fair prices for their produce. TruTrade provides trade finance to bulk buyers of crops from farmers, and operates a payment system that uses digital money. The increasing access to smartphones, the internet and training on their use for business also helps. The women take pictures of their chia seeds and share with bulk buyers, and exchange text messages to ease the previously labour-intensive buying and selling process.
Another area that needs urgent attention is access to modern farm equipment. Most women farmers still use labour-intensive methods. In 2018 the National Planning Authority of Uganda launched a programme to reinforce cooperatives to increase productivity among farmers by providing access to land and farm inputs, as well as the information needed to access to international markets. In July, the government established regional Agricultural Mechanism Centres and pledged to provide each with excavators, self-loading tracks, heavy earth-moving equipment, bulldozers and mobile mechanisation workshop trucks for use by farmers. The centre will also host trained operators and agricultural engineers to provide advice, servicing, maintenance and coordination with the farmer groups.
This ‘single-instrument’ support, in which isolated ad-hoc initiatives might target access to finance, markets or training in the short term, may not work for rural women entrepreneurs, though: it does not create enough momentum for women to escape the low-income cycle. What is needed is integrated support for access to finance, marketing capacity, assistance with improved technologies, quality management and information needs. This would complement the self-help peer-support by women in chia business groups to provide a sustainable platform for the women’s entrepreneurial journeys.