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Women entrepreneurs in agriculture

Land ownership is a major challenge for women entrepreneurs in the agriculture and food production sectors, particularly in low-income countries (LMICs) where customary laws and traditions often prioritize men's ownership of land. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), women own less than 20% of land globally, despite being responsible for more than half of global food production, impacting their business capacity and ability to secure financing. 

The world's smallholder farmers produce around a third of the world's food, with five of every six farms in the world consisting of less than two hectares, operating only around 12 percent of all agricultural land, and producing roughly 35 percent of the world's food.  

While land ownership can be complex and steeped in tradition, governed by local laws and regulation, private sector actors, investors, and agencies can play a role in resolving land ownership for women smallholder farmers by advocating for policy changes, providing legal assistance, and supporting community-based approaches to land rights.

Organisations focused on women’s economic empowerment, for example UN Women, and local NGOs working with women-led small business can facilitate community dialogues opening doors for the private sector in particular to make changes. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has had significant impacts on the agriculture and food sector, particularly in LMICs, where smallholder farmers and women entrepreneurs have faced challenges such as supply chain disruptions, lockdowns and limited access to markets. In a recent interview the World Bank emphasised the impact of the conflict in Ukraine on global food security leading to a reduction in agricultural productivity, with farmers facing difficulties in the cost of and access to inputs such as fertilisers. 

  • A largescale cross-country Facebook, World Bank, and OECD repeat cross-sectional study reported a 26 percent business closure rate among both male- and female-owned businesses globally in end-May 2020, and a 70 percent drop in revenue. 

  • We know that women entrepreneurs are often at the forefront of these sectors, working as farmers, producers, and exporters of products such as coffee, cocoa, vanilla, and fisheries. They are often well-connected within their communities and can provide valuable insights and access to local networks. By partnering with women-led SMEs, the private sector plus large and small investors can gain access to new markets and customers, diversify the supply chain ensuring both the women business owners and partner organisations become more resilient to shocks and disruptions. 

There is increasing evidence to suggest that women-led SMEs can be a powerful force for promoting sustainable economic development and social and environmental impact. For example, research has shown that when women have access to resources and decision-making power, they tend to invest more in their families, communities, and businesses, focusing on job creation and social welfare. Women-led SMEs also tend to prioritize sustainable practices and social responsibility, which can have positive impacts on the environment and society. 

  • In the agriculture and food production sectors, women-led SMEs can play a key role in promoting sustainable practices and reducing waste. Women farmers, for example, tend to use more sustainable and environmentally friendly farming practices, which can lead to improved soil health, reduced greenhouse gas emissions, and increased biodiversity. 

Women entrepreneurs in the agriculture and food production sectors face significant barriers when it comes to accessing finance. According to the International Finance Corporation (IFC), women entrepreneurs in LMICs face a credit gap of $1.48 trillion. While it is essential to unlock the potential growth and promote sustainable economic development, the solution is not just about throwing money at the problem. It requires a nuanced approach that considers the specific challenges faced by women entrepreneurs.

  • It is important to ensure that women entrepreneurs have access to information and understand the available funding options and how to apply for them. For example the conditions of loans, grants, and equity investments, as well as how to prepare a supporting business plan and financial statements. Providing financial literacy training and tailored financial products that are appropriate for the needs of women entrepreneurs. Taking into account the fact that women entrepreneurs may have limited collateral, no credit history, and a different risk profile than their male counterparts. While the barriers for women’s access to finance should be addressed at the root cause, a multifaceted approach is proven to be more effective.

  • It is also important to address the cultural and societal barriers that limit women's access to finance. This includes working with local communities to change perceptions of women's roles in business and promoting the benefits of women's empowerment, creating economic opportunities and improving livelihoods.

  • Investors and donors should focus on supporting sustainable businesses that have a positive social and environmental impact, rather than simply measuring the number of women reached and the size of the investment. This can be achieved through ESG impact investing and by aligning investments with the SDGs. The Global Impact Investing Network's (GIIN) 2020 survey found that the majority of impact investors reported achieving both their financial and social/environmental objectives, with over 90% reporting meeting or exceeding their financial return expectations.

As with all business partnerships, the private sector, investors and donors can support sustainable business in the agriculture and food production sector by taking the long view.  Focus on long-term partnerships with women-led SMEs. Support local capacity building and training initiatives, provide mentorship and measure impact across environmental, social and financial returns.​

The gender gap in land rights (2018). The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. 

Small family farmers product a third of the world’s food. FAO. April 23, 2021 

How is the War in Ukraine affecting Food Security.  World Bank Group. April 5, 2022

Evidence Review Women-led SMEs. COVID 19. (2021) Gates Foundation. 

Women-Owned SMEs: A Business Opportunity for Financial Institutions. International Finance Corporation

Five ways to build gender equality and sustainability. UN Women. 22 February 2022

MSME Finance Gap. International Finance Corporation.

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