Strength in numbers? What does collective action mean for women smallholder farmers?

Food & livelihoods, Gender

In the run up to International Women’s Day on March 8th, Claudia Canepa reports on the latest findings of the Womens Collective Action Research Project.

For too long, women have been under-represented in formal producer groups and agricultural marketing cooperatives in sub-Saharan Africa, despite contributing a high proportion of the agricultural labour.

Development practitioners frequently ask: when promoting women in markets through effective and empowered economic organisations, should we work with women-only groups or mixed (women and men) groups? In order to answer this question Oxfam has been conducting research into women’s collective action since late 2009.

The Researching Women’s Collective Action project gathers evidence on effective ways for women smallholders to organise in order to enhance their incomes, asset ownership and empowerment.

The research focuses on identifying the conditions under which women can benefit from the opportunities presented by collective action in agricultural markets. The research is focuses on three countries in sub-Saharan Africa:  Ethiopia, Mali and Tanzania and consists of three distinct phases:

  • Phase I of the research focused on identifying key sub-sectors where women’s collective action has the potential to deliver benefits in agricultural markets, and doing a preliminary mapping and inventory of collective action in these subsectors.
  • Phase II consisted of qualitative research that focused on the gender dynamics of collective action in the selected sub-sectors.
  • Phase III, which is currently underway, entails conducting quantitative analysis of a few sub-sectors, and developing case studies of  ‘effective collective action.’

As the field research is entering its third phase and with International Women’s Day highlighting the importance of women’s economic empowerment, it is a good time to review some of the key highlights from the second phase of research.

Twenty four communities were studied during phase II of the project.  Outlined below are the key findings:

  1. Asking the question ‘which type of group works better for women?’ is too simplistic. The more appropriate question we are finding is: Which types or combination of groups provide the benefits these women need and work better for women in a specific context?
  2. Most of the women’s income benefits from collective action are due to reduction in production costs and risks, rather than from accessing higher value markets through collective marketing.
  3. Women identified significant barriers to accessing markets. Several are not addressed, or even considered, by most development actors’ interventions.
  4. Women’s participation in formal cooperatives is limited and is greater in informal groups. What new strategies might facilitate women’s participation in formal cooperatives?

Progress on phase III so far includes recruiting the head research advisers, completing a literature review on effective strategies for supporting WCA, developing the research methodologies (quantitative and qualitative) and survey instruments, recruiting country researchers, and conducting the research pilots.

The research will be implemented in March through June. Stakeholder dialogues and national seminars will be held in each country to share findings from June to September.

Collective action holds great promise for multitudes of women whose primary livelihood is dependent on their ability to farm the land and access markets. Coordinated efforts to find out what works, and what hasn’t worked, hold the real promise for improving the direction of lives.

For the latest information on the research project, please visit:

Author: Claudia Canepa
Archive blog. Originally posted on Oxfam Policy & Practice.