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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.

Sylvia Gavigan

“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

Apiole, chia seed farmer

Regrouping

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.

Training

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.

7 COMMENTS

  1. The do gooders, the virtual signalers, to show their accomplishments. yeah right. 🙁
    This was filmed circa 2007
    A great documentary, well worth watching, as it wrenches the curtain down on the cover up, the billions of $’s wasted, never received, and who gets fat on that.
    Plus it seems the Western bureaucracy, that has never worked a real solid day of hard work, only base things on “dreams” like our Greens, now with the “New Green Deal” and the politics of the “The Great Reset”
    .
    Yet there is an alternative, Africans themselves.
    .
    The only aid system documentary that is truly worth watching.
    I heartily recommend, as it works, and has no hand out for your money.
    Now combat, counter all the other devious sly systems, of demanding money from the West.
    .
    …… Band Aid and Live Aid ….. Bandwagon …… [troughers] …
    …… the real tragedy of well-intended yet misguided aid efforts is there for everyone to see. Abandoned health centres, recently-built schools collapsing through neglect, soil dried to dust in areas of plentiful rainwater. It doesn’t seem to make sense; that is, until you realise that most of these aid-backed projects were attempted in isolation: one NGO here, another there, thinking they know best what is needed now, rather than looking to the long term. ……
    .
    …… what’s the point of building a school when the kids are too hungry, or sick with malaria, to attend? You need to provide them with food, health care and education at the same time. This is only part of it, ….
    .
    A group called Self Help Africa runs the project in the Sodo region …..
    ….Whole communities coming together, hundreds of men, women and children digging ditches, building dams: millions of gallons of rainwater which had previously crashed off the mountainside, dragging topsoil from the land below until eventually pouring uselessly into the river and being lost forever, now being stopped in its tracks. That rainwater now seeps into the ground, raising the water table.
    .
    In one vast area, the water table stood at 300 metres below the surface just 18 months ago; virtually impossible to access.
    Today it’s at 80 metres and, within a year, will sit at just eight metres down – easily accessible using the simplest and cheapest of water pumps. …..

    https://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/witness/2011/08/2011810121514543808.html

    The documentary here:-
    “Africa Rising (Foreign Aid Documentary) | Real Stories”
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0aWdFNNNrmU
    51 minutes 18 seconds.

    Dammed good viewing. “to stop receiving free handouts, and to work their own way out of poverty”.

    This Ethiopian, who started this, needs to come to NZ, and made minister of Social Welfare.
    If we could we should co-opt him.

    This documentary needs to be shown more, at maraes, churches, community halls,national, act, and if we can greens, & labour! and all those do gooder virtual signal places!

    4

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  2. This is guaranteed to work here in NZ 100% ,it’s simple just dump all benefits, after the riots stopped this entrepreneurial spirit will be instilled in everybody that wants to eat.LOL.

    2

    0

    • revtech120 I do in a sense agree with you, and it is probably me in lalala land and a bit over the top.
      It seems my concept may be a step too far.
      I even feel it is a bit close to a communistic system, but does divide up to individual business, and individual farms, and then the Ethiopian tax collectors had more tax to collect at that market.

      Take the time to view, it was not an easy run, as there were trouble makers.

      When there was spare money & time, the men liked nothing better to do than drink beer.

      Noticeably the local money lenders were opposed to the change, as they could not continue to charge 100%i interest.

      The men who refused to work for nothing, and wanted the free aid of bags of wheat, first, before doing any work.
      The principle was no food aid. Just re set and get the work done.
      Finally came to their senses.

      The woman who did not repay their loans, made the “debt committee” go through the stress of thinking that if they relented, then many others would also, so cannily had to reset things with stronger terms.

      The farmer poaching extra water, would have seen that he would lose everything, if kicked out.

      After all the those revolting, also had to live in that community.

      In NZ it is too easy to get a “free meal ticket”.

      It is one of the reasons that I supported Bill English’s approach.
      Measure, that started to put in maybe not perfectly, a carrot & stick approach to our beneficiaries and their families.
      Not perfect, but “slowly, slowly, catchee the monkee”.

      Many more things to change, like the indoctrination in our education systems, like the Critical Race Theory.

      I do think there is risk in that Sodo project, in that a marxist socialist system can also come into play, particularly if food aid is imported in.
      At this stage, grab & keep what is good, and put in a value, a history of how they got there.

      How do we get the turn around?
      Is it that we have to reach rock bottom? like the desertification of Ethiopia, when they did try, and then could see the change to come out of poverty.

      In a way we live in a fragile system, temptations for us all, spend the money, wants or needs.
      It takes time, not only education, but experience, knowledge to discern the information and to have wisdom in decisions in our lives and to be able to know what we value in our lives.

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  3. Rickoshay@1324

    No, no, no, old chap, you’ve got it all wrong; it’s Africa for New Zealand, as evidenced by the Somalii’s deliberately imported by Clark, and the on-going African ‘refugee’ influx into NZ.

    Stuff the Kiwi’s; anything to appease the UN and prove how ‘accepting’ and ‘caring’ Dear Leader’ is…

    It’s a very ‘Leftist’ way of doing things.

    2

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