Standard Bank and United Nations (UN) Women’s financial services providers have made progress in equipping women farmers with the skills and tools they need to develop their businesses and prosper over the long term. This is despite the many challenges raised by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Women play a vital role in Africa’s agricultural industry, rising about 70 per cent of the continent’s grain, but being the most vulnerable to climate change impacts, Standard Bank agribusiness corporate and investment banking executive Linda Manda said during a roundtable discussion of the program on January 27.

In 2019, Standard Bank launched a partnership with UN Women to assist more than 50 000 women farmers in Malawi, Uganda, Nigeria and South Africa through a climate-smart agriculture programme.

This initiative focuses on modern and environmentally responsible farming technologies that increase productivity and incomes.

In Malawi, close to 6 000 women have received support in the form of drought-resistant seed varieties and access to modern farming technologies, while 2 300 Nigerian women have been supported to increase the productivity and profitability of their operations within the rice and nut value chains particularly.

In South Africa, the programme has helped to deliver agricultural inputs, including drought-resistant seed varieties, organic manure, farming equipment and training on smart agriculture, to 2 700 women farmers, most of it in the first half of last year, despite the pandemic.

About 1 400 Ugandan women have undergone business management training and mentorship programmes or were provided access to inputs such as feeds, particularly through a fish farming aquaculture programme.

A beneficiary of the programme from South Africa, Bonolo Maqeba, says women face many challenges in the agricultural sector across the continent, including access to land, limited access to technological advances and market opportunities and lack of infrastructure.

Women are also often confined by the local market, which is generally more of a low price environment than the urban market, she adds.

Maqeba points out that the Standard Bank and UN Women assistance has helped to reduce soil erosion on her farm and increase her yield.

UN Women socioeconomic adviser for East and Southern Africa region Nidhi Tandon notes that women are the bedrock of the rural agriculture sector as producers and as household heads responsible for nutrition within the family. Women often are the distributors of products in the value chain and help determine how produce is consumed.

She says smallholder women farmers need empowering to better work their land and steward it for future generations, with help from climate-smart farming technologies and knowledge, to which the Standard Bank and UN Women programme caters.

Tandon points out that empowerment is not limited to access to technology and land, but also involves access to information for better decision-making and understanding who they are farming for and how best to do so.

She mentions that the African Continental Free Trade Area should not just enable the movement of produce and money, but also that of women across borders to conduct their business.

“Women have effectively been intra-regional traders for centuries, but the borders of countries remain a place of uncertainty and danger for women.”

These are the kinds of issues governments need to consider as part of their food security policies.

Meanwhile, from a financing perspective, Standard Bank Malawi relationship banking head Graham Chipande says banks are starting to recognise the need for feeding the planet more sustainably; as well as that the best way to ensure food security is to enable access to markets and opportunities for smallholder farmers.

However, the biggest barrier for these farmers to access financing is a lack of information – about yields and soil health, market prices and seasonality. This lack of information manifests in the eyes of a financial services provider as high risk prompting them to price their offering accordingly, often ending up being unaffordable for smallholder farmers.

“With more access to data, we can bridge that gap and enable more institutions to participate in solutions to smallholder farmers,” Chipande says.

He adds that banks are also starting to understand the impact of Covid-19 on value chains, particularly for large operations. For example, businesses are looking to buy inputs earlier or are stocking up on finished products for later export, which increases the demand for storage solutions and therefore financing.

Tandon says UN Women will continue to support women farmers across the continent and she encourages more institutions to come on board with the programme.

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