In the political arena, Ethiopia takes the fight against gender inequality seriously. Since the 1990s, multiple laws have been passed at both national and regional levels to safeguard women’s rights and encourage their involvement in Ethiopia’s development goals. While these policy decisions were a good start, more work needs to be done to bring about real change in women’s lives.
Although many young women attend university in Ethiopia, a significant number leave school at around grade ten and then get married. Once in a new household, women rarely have control of important family decisions or money, even the money they have earned. They often don’t get the opportunity to learn all the things that are culturally considered to be the man’s responsibility. If the man in such a household dies or absents himself from the household for whatever reason, that woman is placed in a highly vulnerable position that all but consigns her to poverty.
Endalsh Worke was a prime example of such a situation. In the town of Merawi, in the Mecha North district of the Amhara Region State, there are ten potato wholesalers. She is the only woman among them. Endalsh began trading after her husband divorced her. He is a potato wholesaler as well, and his activities when they were married gave Endalsh a step up compared to her peers. She had been exposed to his trading partners and, after he left, used those contacts to set up her own business with which she could support her family of five.
“I had good relationships with seed potato wholesalers from the highland areas around Debre Markos in the Amhara region. That allowed me – both then and now – to purchase seed on credit and pay back the suppliers after the sale. I also had clients for the seed potatoes in the Merawi area. Come harvest time, I would buy ware potatoes that those clients had harvested for resale at the Merawi market. But I couldn’t weigh my options for better purchase prices of seed potatoes because my network was too small, limited to people who knew me. I couldn’t sell further afield and get better prices because I couldn’t get access to those markets,” Endalsh explains.
In such personal, almost micro levels, changing the law alone simply wasn’t going to help her. Something needed to be done to help fill in the gaps between policy and practice.
Getting Boots on the Ground
In a joint effort between the Ethiopian and Finnish Governments, the Agro-Business Induced Growth (AgroBIG) programme was launched in 2013. With NIRAS providing technical assistance, AgroBIG aimed to enhance job creation and increase incomes of agricultural households in the Amhara regional state, specifically in the Mecha and Fogera districts. The main approach was to foster a market-driven approach among the various stakeholders in the potato, onion, rice, and maize sectors. While AgroBIG was aimed at the general population involved in these sectors, special attention was paid to helping women and youth gain employment, usually by training them to offer value-adding services and products to farmers and traders. During Phase I, which ended in 2017, close to 1,000 job opportunities were created in this way. Thanks to the combination of improved knowledge of the farmers and traders, and the ability of more market players to value-add in the value chain, household incomes increased as much as sevenfold by the end of Phase I.
Endalsh was one of the beneficiaries of AgroBIG’s first phase. Through the programme, she gained access to vital training, specifically in business management, record keeping and customer handling. Furthermore, she gained access to wider networks, which have allowed her to source better-quality seed potatoes and sign bigger purchase contracts for ware potatoes that she could offer to more markets. Thanks to an AgroBIG business linkage forum that Endalsh attended, she could take advantage of business opportunities in the Koga Irrigation Area, a 7,000-hectare area covered by the Koga Irrigation Scheme. It is one of Ethiopia’s flagship projects aimed at providing irrigation to smallholders, especially in the dry season.
Despite the infrastructure developments in the area (coming to about EUR13 million in investment), the smallholders there are hampered by the lack of knowledge regarding the use of high-quality inputs, appropriate cultivation practices, and post-harvest handling of crops. AgroBIG is involved in Koga to address these challenges, both through education and by supporting the creation of sustainable market linkages. “My business is successful because I supply better-quality seed potatoes from the East Gojjam highlands,” the 29-year-old tells us. “My clients trust me. Now, I sell 11 tonnes of seed potatoes to farmers in Koga on a weekly basis during the season and, after attending a market linkage forum supported by AgroBIG, I was able to sign a contract buying agreement with the Koga Irrigation Cooperative Union to buy 22 tonnes of ware potatoes from Koga farmers that I can take to the major markets.” In so doing, she not only expands her own business, but also provides the farmers in the Koga Irrigation Area with access to a crucial resource, high-quality seed potatoes that will lead to higher yields.
However, she still finds herself handicapped by the lack of access to formal sector credit. She could expand her business much further by offering a wider variety of products to her clients, including sprouted potatoes. Her suppliers refuse to sell sprouted potatoes to her, as it’s too easy to damage the sprouts in transit from East Gojjam to Mecha, which means that she would either have to sprout seed potatoes herself or sell seed potatoes to farmers, who would have to wait for the sprouting to take place. Offering sprouted potatoes is more profitable, but she doesn’t have the necessary storage space to do this and, as a woman, she can’t access the kind of money she needs to acquire such a space. In her own words: “If I had access to credit at reasonable interest rate, I could benefit much more from my business.”
To help her and others like her, Phase II of AgroBIG – running from 2017 until 2021 – will be bigger and even better. First, it will expand its area of activity to more districts. Second, it will put a specific priority on involving more women in its activities. And finally, vitally, it will provide special access to funding for women and youth (above what it does for industry stakeholders in general), making use of a variety of financial instruments to keep the interest down as much as possible.
My clients trust me. Now, I sell 11 tonnes of seed potatoes to farmers in Koga on a weekly basis during the season and, after attending a market linkage forum supported by AgroBIG, I was able to sign a contract buying agreement with the Koga Irrigation Cooperative Union to buy 22 tonnes of ware potatoes from Koga farmers that I can take to the major markets.
Thanks to women like Endalsh, the people who work with her and others like them, more women are gaining confidence and venturing out into the business sphere. Because they drop out of school at grade ten, most women are disqualified from pursuing a university education. Instead of sitting at home, however, more and more young women are starting businesses to support themselves and their families. Now there can be hope that they’ll be able to make it work, due in part to initiatives such as AgroBIG and other organizations’ efforts to even out the gender playing field.
To learn more about AgroBIG, visit http://www.agrobig.org