Working with companies on women’s economic empowerment in value chains

Ulrike Joras Agriculture, Food & livelihoods, Women's Economic Empowerment

Salimata Kone (pictured) is a cocoa farmer and lives with her husband and children near Divo, a city in southern Côte d’Ivoire. She took part in a project to improve her family income and financial resilience through crop diversification, producing other crops alongside her cocoa harvest. Through the project, Salimata not only managed to increase her family’s income by harvesting more than 450kg of maize, but she also became a community leader, sharing her newly learned farming techniques with other women.   

What’s special about this project was that the organizations behind it weren’t only NGOs, rather the project was backed by Barry Callebaut, one of the world’s biggest manufacturers of chocolate and cocoa products, and Unilever, who sources cocoa from them. This multi-stakeholder approach was guided by Oxfam who provided technical expertise, and One Acre Fund, who rolled out the initiative on the ground. 

Together, Unilever and Oxfam are part of the Enhancing Livelihoods Fund (ELF), an initiative to improve the lives of smallholders operating in Unilever’s value chains, particularly the lives of women. In order for Unilever suppliers to be eligible for ELF funding, projects must incorporate a strong ‘gender lens’, which ensures that women benefit from the projects and aren’t disadvantaged by unintended consequences.  

Time and again, women have been kept out of sustainable agriculture projects as they are often not perceived as “real” farmers. This can be because they do not own the land titles or only have limited time to participate as they are responsible for the bulk of domestic work and caring responsibilities. In spite of these barriers, women regularly perform large parts of farm work globally. 

About two-thirds of the cocoa labour force in Côte d’Ivoire, for example, are women, yet they earn only about 20% of the income. Hence, for projects to maximise impact, they mustinclude a focus on issues specific to women and gender.   

Over the last five years, ELF has worked with a range of Unilever suppliers in different value chains, such as cocoa, coconut sugar and ylang-ylang.  Some, such as a project on ylang-ylang, worked with women pickers exclusively, while others involved both men and women farmers.  Here’s what we’ve learnt from our experiences about tackling gender within agricultural value chains alongside private sector partners.  

  • Deepening gender understanding within the private sector is work-in-progress. Companies involved in ELF had varying levels of experience in incorporating a gender lens into their smallholder and value chain projects. While some had their own well-established programmes, for others, issues like gender were largely unfamiliar. Conducting a gender analysis as part of project design, for example, was a novelty for some companies that required not only technical support but also general explanations about the significance of women in smallholder farming.  
     Through several ELF projects, Oxfam and our partners sought to convey to companies that women often play “invisible” though critical roles in a company’s value chain. for example, women ylang-ylang flower pickers are critical to ensure good quality essential oil. And even if not immediately engaged in a company’s value chain, women are vital for the wider livelihoods of farming families. We know that the sustainability of cocoa production depends on improvements in the livelihoods and resilience of farmers. This, however, can only be achieved if improvements in the cocoa value chain sit alongside wider improvements, e.g. through strengthening alternative income streams or improved nutrition. Women play a critical role in these activities, and projects that involve any aspect of smallholder livelihoods need a robust understanding of women’s lives and the challenges they face.   
  • Once experienced, companies have started to appreciate the importance of focusing on gender. Gender inclusion was a requirement for accessing ELF funding. Combining this with hands-on technical expertise gave companies both the impetus and support needed to look at gender in a more robust way.  But this was just the first step. Our aim was not for gender to be included as a box-ticking exercise, but that companies would come to see the business value of working with women. We were encouraged to see that many companies perceived the gender component of ELF projects as relevant enough to take on the lessons and apply them to other projects, commodities and value chains. The learnings on gender from a project that focused on women pickers in the ylang-ylang value chain, for instance, were taken by the company and incorporated in other initiatives.   
  • Companies wanting to better support women in their value chains used a range of approaches. Some of these entry points that stood out for us included: working with field staff to increase their understanding about the role women play in value chains, developing training on agricultural practices in a way that enables women to access it more easily, or strengthening women’s voice through setting up women’s groups and associations.  By offering training at flexible times, providing videos on tablets, and portraying women and not only men as farmers, enables better training accessibility and has shown to boost women’s uptake of the learnings.  

Gender constraints within supply chains are complex and systemic, and fully tackling them would require a longer time-frame and greater investment than what ELF could offer. However, the pilot projects that we supported have played an important role in increasing awareness among our private sector partners about the barriers that women face and how to address these. This includes the importance of care roles, the social norms that impact what they can and cannot do, or the legal and customary systems that impacts how women can participate in cooperatives and associations.   


Ulrike Joras