Empowering rural women through business development: examples from the Kenyan dairy sector

Agriculture, Gender, Women

Regina Laub and Johanna Schmidt, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations,

In recent years, the commercialization of agriculture, global trade liberalization, technological advancement and other major trends have deeply changed the agricultural sector and broader food systems.

While these trends have created opportunities and positive results, such as opening up new markets and creating successful linkages between farmers and markets, they also pose challenges for rural many actors, especially smallholder farmers, in accessing and benefitting from local, national and global markets.

Rural women in particular, experience difficulties in participating in and benefitting equally from agri-food value chains. Women’s productive and entrepreneurial potential is often constrained by their limited access to assets, services and productive resources. As a result, women remain overrepresented in the low-paid, low-skilled nodes of the chain, and excluded from more promising market and business opportunities that might be emerging from value chain development.

Moreover, evidence shows that this gender gap in agriculture, not only hinders women’s economic potential, but also affects the overall performance of agri-food value chains, and as such represents a missed opportunity in achieving zero hunger and improving food security and nutrition for all. Eliminating gender-based constraints in agri-food value chains, will therefore not only improve women’s opportunities for economic empowerment, but it will also contribute to value addition, reduce food losses and improve the lives of rural women and men and their families.

Addressing gender-based constraints in agrifood value chains

In an effort to support member states in addressing gender- based barriers in agri-food value chains, FAO, with funding from the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, is implementing the FAO Multipartner Programme Support Mechanism Programme (FMM), “Enabling women to benefit more equally from agrifood value chains”.

The objective of the programme is to address the specific constraints that limit rural women’s participation in agri-food value chains, by strengthening women’s capacities and fostering an enabling institutional environment.

The programme focuses its activities on selected value chains, which are dairy, fisheries, horticulture, roots and tubers and small scale cross-border trade, covering eight African countries (Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Morocco, Rwanda and Tunisia).

As a result, the programme contributes to expand women’s economic opportunities and benefits from agri-food value chains, triggering multiplier effects on food security and nutrition, education and health.

Empowering rural women through dairy value chain development: the Kenyan example

One of the selected value chains in the programme is dairy, representing an important livelihood opportunity for rural households in Kenya. However, specific gender-based constraints such as access to productive resources, services and technologies, are limiting women dairy farmers to take full advantage of the business potential of dairy value chain, with women over-represented in the less lucrative segments of the chain. Disproportionate work-load between women and men, limited access to farming practices and a lack of entrepreneurial skills also add to the challenge.

In Kenya, the FMM programme is being implemented in the Lessos District of Nandi County, the leading Kenyan dairy production region. Here, FAO has supported several activities to raise awareness and address women and men’s specific needs, constraints and opportunities in the dairy value chain.

At the national level, FAO has provided support to the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries in conducting a review of the National Livestock Policy, providing the government with tools and techniques for sex disaggregated data collection, as a means to inform evidence-based policy making. The review resulted in that a gender component was integrated in the National Livestock Policy, and thus contributed to a more enabling policy and institutional environment.

At the county level, FAO has provided trainings for regional service providers, governmental and non-governmental actors, by supporting them to adopt a gender-sensitive approach, taking women and men’s specific needs, constraints and opportunities into account. FAO has also conducted several activities at the community level, for example by strengthening managerial and marketing skills of the Lessos Dairy Farmers Cooperative Society (LDFCS): a female dominated cooperative comprising of almost 4000 members.


The Business Service Centre supports business development


One specifically successful initiative in Nandi County, is the establishment of a Business Service Centre (BSC) that started its activities in 2016. The BSC, is located at the LDFCS premises, working in synergies with other units of the cooperative and in direct contact with farmers and households. The BSC promotes business-oriented dairy farming by increasing women’s access to productive resources, markets, and networks, as well as improving technical skills and know how on farm and business practices. By connecting women farmers and entrepreneurs with markets and service providers, the BSC not only promotes increased profit, but also women’s agency, recognition and decision making power at the household and community levels.

Targeted services are boosting productivity and strengthening capacities

So what kind of services does the BSC provide? First of all, The BSC provides training on enterprise and business development. The centre also promotes business exposure, for example through exhibitions, field visits and technology demonstrations. Other critical components include training in business planning, online marketing match making, and as well as support in business registration and income tax payment.

In addition to this, the BSC works in close collaboration with external service providers in order to

facilitate access to technical skills and know how in dairy farming, labour saving technologies and financial services and business planning. The centre has also been successful in linking its members to social services, including reproductive health services, social security and legal counselling, which very often rural women have limited, or no access at all to.

Several success stories have emerged from the activities of the BSC, for example over 200 farmers of Lessos Cooperative (mostly women) attended a training in business oriented dairy farming and rural enterprise management. Capacities were also strengthened in fodder production, harvesting techniques and processing. This resulted in 40 business start-ups in dairy retail (yogurt and cheese), livestock as well as commercial fodder production businesses.

Other positive outcomes resulted in that almost 50 women opened an account at a local saving and credit cooperative. The intention was to invest in new technologies for business expansion, which resulted in small business start-ups in the vehicle retail and the insurance industry.


Transforming rural lives and changing mindsets

The BSC has not only stimulated increased productivity and profits from dairy farming, it has also successfully addressed other gender-based constraints such as gender stereotypes. As one male BSC trainee said:

“In addition to having increased profits, the BSC has also opened my eyes on gender inequalities between women and men. Women are often left alone to do all the work, without receiving any money and are often seen as labourers rather than partners. The training made me understand we have to change all of this in order to be successful in our business.”

The Kenyan dairy value chain programme, is a good example on how a gender-sensitive approach has helped to transform the lives and livelihoods of rural women and men, by boosting business development and entrepreneurial skills. The activities have not only improved the quality of life by increased profit and income, but has also helped to transform intra-household dynamics and shaped the image of rural women as entrepreneurs. As such, the BSC should be replicated and scaled up beyond the dairy value chain, as an important tool for small holder farmers to become successful in their farming businesses.


References and further reading

FAO. (2011). The State of Food and Agriculture 2010 – 2011: Women in Agriculture.

FAO. (2013). Our Priorities: The FAO Strategic Objectives.

FAO. (2016). Developing gender-sensitive value chains. A guiding framework.

FAO. (2016).   Meeting our Goals. FAO’s programme on gender equality and rural development

FAO. (2017). Gender assessment of dairy value chain: evidence from Kenya



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