Rural women in India go digital to manage the pandemic’s disruptions

Women artisans from Barara village in Gujarat’s Patan district doing traditional embroidery.

Muskanben Vohara and her group of women weavers in Gujarat’s Anand district were overcome with worry when the lockdown was announced to contain the Covid-19 pandemic.

I look after eight members of my family,” said the 20-year-old on a video call from her village home. “All our work had come to a grinding halt. How would we survive?”  

Luckily, Muskanben and her group had just been trained in digital skills by the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), a membership-based organization that seeks to improve the lives and livelihoods of women who work in the informal sector, including seamstresses, artisans, vendors, and small and marginal farmers.Our Leelawati project proved timely. When we first launched it, traditional occupations were being buffeted by globalization, liberalization and other economic changes. Little did we realize how useful the training would become during the pandemic.Reema NanavatySEWA’s Director

Armed with the training, the group was soon able to share photographs of their products online, create Whatsapp groups of customers, and enable digital payments for purchases.

Not only were we able to continue our work uninterrupted,” declared Muskanben proudly, “we sold off all our stocks of domestic furnishings.”  

“Our Leelawati project proved timely,” explained Reema Nanavaty, SEWA’s director. “When we first launched it, traditional occupations were being buffeted by globalization, liberalization and other economic changes.  Little did we realize how useful the training would become during the pandemic.”

While the trainings have enabled Muskanben and other crafts persons to broaden their customer base through Facebook and Instagram , most women have used their new skills to weather the pandemic’s disruptions by learning how to carry out basic online transactions.  

Many of them now make cashless payments through PayTm, the BHIM App, and Google Pay rather than meeting people, handling cash and risking infections. 

Mitali Prajapati, whose father runs a utensil shop in Ahmedabad district, remembers the difficulties they faced in the early days of the pandemic. “Our business stalled as my father could no longer travel to other villages to pay his suppliers,” she recalled. “The training helped me overcome my fear of losing money and now I make these payments digitally for him.” Image

Younger generations hone their skills in traditional embroidery in Gujarat’s Patan district. Photo Credit: Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA)
“Through this program, our effort has been to open up new livelihood opportunities for poor rural women, promote women-led entrepreneurship and accelerate a national shift towards the greater inclusion of women in the workforce,” said Junaid Ahmad.

Jayshree Gharoda from Gujarat’s Kutch district never used her mobile phone for anything other than calls. Now, this 30-year-old who lives with her husband’s 14-member extended family, pays all the household’s bills online.

Empowering Smallholder Farmers to be Food System Change Agents

NOTE: This article was first published on and is reposted here with the permission of Farming First. 

The Nutrition for Growth Year of Action got off to an auspicious start at a virtual launch event last month, where prominent stakeholders announced investment commitments of more than $3 billion toward the upcoming Nutrition for Growth Summit‘s goal of addressing the hunger and nutrition crisis.

Separately, the UN is convening a Food Systems Summit (UNFSS) in September to identify strategies for making food and agriculture systems not only more nutritious but also more equitable, environmentally sustainable, and resilient to shocks such as the Covid-19 pandemic.

The pandemic’s serious impacts on health, well-being, and economies have heightened the sense of urgency to ensure that food systems can deliver nutritious diets to everyone, under any conditions. But food systems transformation will only happen if we succeed in engaging and empowering the hundreds of millions of smallholder farming families around the world who are highly vulnerable to malnutrition.

These families work three-quarters of all agricultural land and their diets depend primarily on what they grow. In Africa, 80 per cent of farms ­– 40 million across the continent – are of smallholder size. Often, these smallholders lack the means and the financial incentives to produce more nutritious foods for themselves, as well as for those who purchase from them.

Biofortification: A proven and scalable solution  

There is one proven, agriculture-based strategy, specifically tailored to smallholder families, which should be part of the solution toward food systems transformation: biofortified staple crops. These are varieties of rice, wheat, maize, beans, and other common staples that have been conventionally bred to contain nutritionally-significant levels of iron, zinc and/or vitamin A—all micronutrients that are essential for maintaining good health and ensuring proper mental and physical development in children. Biofortified crops are scientifically proven to improve nutrition and health outcomes when eaten regularly.

Biofortification research began in the 1990s within the CGIAR international agricultural research partnership, under the leadership of the HarvestPlus programme, as a response to widespread micronutrient deficiency among the world’s rural poor. The first biofortified crop variety was officially released to farmers in 2004 (a vitamin A orange sweet potato variety in Uganda).

Biofortified crops make nutrition accessible to farming families: They are one-for-one replacements for the lower-nutrient staple varieties that these families already grow. There is no sacrifice in yield or other agronomic traits important to farmers. These crops are also affordable for smallholder farming families, requiring no additional investment, and deliver micronutrients less expensively than typically higher-nutrient foods such as fruits, vegetables, and animal source products, which tend to be too costly for these families.

Biofortified crops also provide livelihood opportunities for farmers as well as small-scale entrepreneurs. SME food businesses are springing up throughout Africa, Asia, and Latin America to develop and sell food products with biofortified ingredients, creating a market for smallholders’ biofortified crops and an attractive financial incentive to grow them.

Most significantly in the Covid-19 era, biofortified crops also provide key micronutrients (particularly zinc and vitamin A) that boost health resilience by strengthening immune systems. Furthermore, since the micronutrients are delivered through staple foods, they are more likely to reach and benefit female household members. Research has shown that, in many rural regions, male household members have preferential access to animal source foods and other higher-nutrient food items.

Currently, more than 340 varieties of 11 staple crops are available to farmers in 40 countries, benefiting about 50 million smallholder family members. The CGIAR research centers provide biofortified varieties as public goods to countries, where national agricultural researchers work with farmers to adapt these varieties to local conditions and farmer preferences.

Biofortified crops are ready for rapid scale-up, based on this extensive proof of concept under real-world conditions. The HarvestPlus goal is to work with multiple partners to reach one billion people with these nutritious crops by 2030.

Strong interest among policymakers

There is strong and growing interest among national leaders for scaling up biofortification in their countries. In just the past few months, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a public declaration in favor of biofortified crops and their integration in nationwide food assistance programmes.

Tanzania released comprehensive biofortification guidelines that provide welcome guidance for farmers and food businesses. And Guatemala’s government included biofortified crops in a new national strategic food reserve that is part of a new Covid-19 economic recovery plan. These and other leaders recognise the valuable role biofortification can play in better food systems.

Commitments at this year’s two summits to scaling up biofortification will show that the international community has the interests of the most vulnerable rural families top of mind. Biofortified crops are an equitable, inclusive, and complementary response to global malnutrition that put positive food systems change in the hands of these families.

Andrew Natsios served as Administrator of the United States Agency for International Development from 2001-2006. He is Advisory Committee Chair of HarvestPlus, and executive professor at the Bush School and director of the Scowcroft Institute of International Affairs at Texas A&M University.

Sierra Leone’s President Julius Maada Bio Inspects Agricultural Machinery at the Agriculture Central Stores

Sierra Leone president Julius Maada Bio has embarked on an inspection tour of the stores of the Ministry of Agriculture that is housing about 2,410 agricultural implements and 410 tractors for the 2021 planting season. 

In the 2018 New Direction Manifesto of the SLPP, the President emphasised that the overall goal of their agricultural policy was to sustain and diversify the production of food, increase investment in agriculture, develop and implement mechanised commercial farming to transform the traditional subsistence agricultural sector. 

At the inspection site, east of Freetown, President Bio said his visit was to show that his government was serious about improving the agricultural sector and providing the enabling environment for farmers to exhibit and discover their true potentials. 

“There has been constant grumbling about the lack of mechanisation in farming over the years. With these machines, it is now left with us as a country to effectively utilise them to increase agricultural productivity for the years ahead,” he noted.

The Acting Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Food Security, Dr Abubakar Karim, disclosed that all the 410 tractors and 2,410 farming implements would be distributed across the country by next week to ensure that farmers were ready for the 2021 planting season.

How the ‘Gender Model Family’ is changing communities in remote Sierra Leone

We are escorted into the bush of mainly palm trees about half a mile or more from the dwellings of Kamasu village, Tunkia Chiefdom, Kenema District, Eastern Sierra Leone. The villagers say they only allowed us because we are journalists. The rule is that during this COVID-19 ‘no strangers are allowed’.

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“We are observing the precautionary measures,” says one of our escorts, referencing the COVID-19 bye laws put in place by the village Chief, and adjusting his locally made face mask which keeps sliding while he talks.

In a cleared area within the palm tree plantations, a group of men and women are busy producing palm oil using a Sierra Leonean-made oil processing machine. One woman is emptying boiled palm kernels into the mouth of the machine while two others- two at both ends of a long stick passed through the top hub of the processor- are pushing the stick in circle until the peels are squashed. It is a hard job, especially for the women, but not as physically demanding as the traditional method of using their feet and later pounding.

Before they had the machine, it’s a rigid process to produce palm oil according to Baby Bockarie, one of the farmers, who is also the wife of the village Chief.

“We used to carry the palm kernels on our heads, dig a hole and dump them, cover them with palm fronds for a couple of days and stamp with our feet. After that we do a lot of pounding as well. Now, with this machine given to us by SEND Sierra Leone, it is easier, faster, cleaner and we produce more,” explains Baby Bockarie.

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Before the machine, she explains further, it takes two to three days to process a drum full of palm kernels. They will boil today, stamp in a hole the next day and pound on the day after. Now it takes less than a day to process the same quantity of palm kernels.

In a day the machine can process for three groups under the gender model family (GMF), each comprising of 15 or more members. On this particular day the processing is for Baby Bockarie’s group. The GMF encourages the families to operate as a unified unit with shared responsibilities among family members. We understand later that it is the vehicle the NGO uses to roll out community development initiatives like the oil palm processing machine by enhancing community cohesion and mobilisation.

Under the GMF, the families benefit from trainings in family life, health and hygiene best practices, small business development and savings, best agronomic practices, natural management of pest and diseases control, farm size experience through “smart” agriculture and resilience farming through “Climate smart” agriculture.

“We used to quarrel a lot within the family and with our neighbours, and usually we end up at the Chief’s house to resolve the conflicts. After the trainings we have learnt to live together in peace and respect for one another. If there are any issues they are settled within the group,” explains Chief Bockarie Koroma, who also participates in the palm oil processing.

The Bockarie’s have four children, two males and two females. Both family heads don’t know their ages or dates of birth.

The trainings have also helped the villagers to maintain a healthy environment by cleaning their communities and even their farms regularly, digging pits some distance off the community to dump garbage, ensuring each household has a toilet, erect cloth lines to dry their clothes and build tables for cooking utensils such as plates, pans, bowls and pots.

Diversified agriculture has increased their number of nutritious crops cultivated in the past two years and thus improve their nutrition status. In addition to other nutritious crops (Benni, Beans, Maize, Banana and Plantain) supplied to them in the first year of the project, they have been supplied additional groundnut seeds this planting season as group support which account for four acres of groundnut farmland cultivated this year.

By this time a group of staff of the NGO has joined us. They are traveling from one village to another inspecting their project activities. The oil palm presser is provided to the community under a project called Linking Agriculture, Nutrition and Natural Resources (LANN+) funded by German donor agency WHH.

“This project seeks to promote income generation for the locals through value addition to their products,” explains Tity Simbo Kamara, the Program Manager of the project.

Apart from the individual household farms, the community has eight acres of palm oil plantation. Proceeds from the community plantation is re-invested in other agricultural products while some amount is saved for maintenance of the machine. The GMF households also do the same. A small fee is charged for use of the machine. For every drum of palm oil produced, one gallon is given to the community as fee. Neighbouring villages such as Hao and Jewahun sometimes also borrow the machine to process their produce and pay the fee. Chief Bockarie lead us to a store in the village where they keep them. We count 70 jerry cans of palm oil they have collected since they received the processing machine in February 2020. There’s a secretary that keeps record of the payments.

They could have had more in store if it were not for the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the store keeper.

“The government restrictions and the lockdown are affecting our work,” he laments. “ ‘Dawei’ (the periodic market) is suspended and seeds are difficult to get. Farming is by season and the rains are almost here.”

For the about 1000 people of Kamasu village, COVID-19 will soon go away and life will return to normal.

“We can’t wait for this sickness to end. We want to go back to our farms and work full time. We are not used to sitting at home idly,” says Baby Bockarie.

Story by Ahmed Sahid Nasralla, (President of the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists), and Alhaji Manika Kamara.

Sierra Leone Rural women share experiences in farming and governance

By Ahmed Sahid Nasralla (De Monk)

The women participated in a crash planting demonstration of cabbage

A group of women Councilors from the Eastern Region of Sierra Leone have ended a two-day learning and exchange visit to their counterparts in Kabala, Koinadugu District, in the North of the country.

The women from the East, mainly drawn from the women in governance networks in Kenema and Kailahun districts, were interested in farming activities by the women groups in Kabala while they in turn shared their experiences in political governance.

“We see this engagement as a win-win for the women in both regions,” said Jeneba Combey, Head of Governance Project, SEND Sierra Leone, the organisers of the program with funding from Irish Aid and UNDP Sierra Leone. “Both groups shared their experiences including successes, challenges and opportunities. The women from the East are doing well in political representation while the women in Kabala are doing well in agriculture. So it’s a good learning process for both groups.” 

Kabala grows most of the vegetables consumed by the country and women are the main growers.

Led by the President of the Koinadugu Women Vegetable Farmers Association, Haja Sundu Marrah, the women were taken on a conducted tour of the group’s demonstration farm of about 17 acres and later the main farm of 20 acres located seven miles away into the outskirt of the town.

According to Haja Marrah, the farm lands were donated by the Paramount Chiefs as part of their own support to the women farmers. The women farm collectively as a group, but they also have individual farms of their own. They plant a variety of vegetables including cabbage, carrot, onions, tomato and garden eggs. The group participated in a crash planting demonstration of onions while Haja Marrah explained the processes involved till harvesting time.

Most of the women in the group, which started as the Kabala Women Project way back in 1984, did not have the opportunity to go to school, but today, in the estimation of Haja Marrah, “we are degree holders because from our farming we have educated our children, especially our girls, through University and we have been able to build our own houses”.

“The majority of us pay our children’s education fees throughout from the farming we do,” continued Haja Marrah. “Not that our husbands do not want to pay, but the children are many and they could not afford to pay for all of them. Naturally, their preference will be the boys.”

Through this also, she added, they have been able to minimize conflicts usually associated with polygamous homes in which they find themselves since their parents forced them into marriage at the early ages of 13, 14 and 15.

“I was born into a polygamous home and I got married into one as well at the age of 14,” explained Haja Marrah. “My husband has two other wives; I am the third. So you can imagine how our farming activities have helped us overcome these challenges.”

However, the three times AWOL Farmer of the Year lamented lack of market for their produce as a key challenge for them.

“Our main challenge is the market. Before now when we were with FAO, they linked us with the big hotels in Freetown. We supply them by turns; some of us will supply on a Monday, others will supply on Friday and throughout the month. They calculated our supplies for the month and they paid us in dollars. That was the first time we started to earn dollars and that’s when we started building our individual houses,” she explained. “But nowadays they don’t buy from us anymore because they have put rigid criteria in place which are difficult for us to meet.”

To overcome the challenge, the Kabala women now plant more of sweet potatoes and onions and less of other vegetables. Everybody, they argue, eats onions for example and people buy them daily. Moreover, they are easy to grow and can be harvested every two weeks. Most importantly sweet potatoes and onions don’t perish easily.

Moreover, Haja Marrah is positive that the new Minister of Agriculture, Food Security and Forestry is showing concerns about their situation.

Meanwhile, the visiting delegation led by the President of the Kenema Women in Governance Network, Fatmata Dassama, shared their experiences in the empowerment of women in the Eastern districts of Kenema and Kailahun. Dassama explained the formation of the women in governance networks in Kailahun and most recently in Kenema. She noted that the foundation for their political empowerment started with the empowerment of women economically through various micro-credit schemes.

“Through the help of our main partner (SEND Sierra Leone) and donors, we benefited from micro-credit loans which enabled us to do small businesses that brought us income,” explained Dassama. “In addition, we were trained on business development, leadership, public speaking and advocacy skills. Soon we started aspiring for political office at district and national levels. Today, we are proud to boast of female Section chiefs, Town chiefs, Members of Parliament and Councilors through support from our governance network projects.”

Unlike the Northern province which includes Koinadugu District, the Eastern province has the highest number of women in political office. In the 2012 national elections, 12 women won seats as councilors in Kailahun District. After the 2018 national elections the Eastern region now boasts 25 female councilors and four Members of Parliament. 

Until recently, the Northern region is renowned for its lack of opportunities for women aspiring for decision making positions at district and national level.

Farmers on the frontline in battle against drug-resistant microbes: UN health agency

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has revealed that as some 700,000 people are dying each year from antimicrobial resistant infections, an untold number of sick animals are also suffering from diseases that do not respond to treatment.

Marking World Antibiotic Awareness Week, FAO stressed that farmers have a vital role to play in stemming the spread of what is known as antimicrobial resistance, or AMR, and called on them to boost hygiene practices in day-to-day farm operations.

“When we use antimicrobials excessively on farms, we’re contributing to the spread of AMR, as resistant pathogens move into the environment through animal waste and farm runoff,” said Juan Lubroth, FAO’s Chief Veterinary Officer, on Wednesday.

“They can even contaminate our food systems and market chains, moving from the fields and stables to our tables,” he noted.

According to FAO, one person dies every minute from a drug-resistant infection, a number that will only increase without global action. By 2050, the growing AMR threat will cost the global economy an estimated $6 trillion dollars every year. 

AMR also has major implications for food safety, food security and the livelihoods of millions of farming households across the planet, who can ill afford production losses, the costs of caring for sick animals, or livestock casualties.

“If we are to feed a growing population and keep antimicrobials working,” said Dr. Lubroth, “we need to invest in our farmers and food production systems to shift to more sustainable agricultural practices.” 

“Antimicrobial resistance is a concern for all of us,” said FAO Assistant Director-General Bukar Tijani. “There are over seven billion consumers in the world, and food safety and quality are paramount to success in meeting many of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals.”

Farmers are ‘frontline defenders’ against superbug spread

Antimicrobial drugs are widely used for domestic animals, in fish farms and even on crops and across fruit orchards – sometimes as preventative measures to stave off infections and fatten animals faster.

Their improper use has contributed to an increase in the number of resistant microbes that, among other problems, renders treatments useless against some serious infections.

Calling farmers “one of the important frontline defenders” in the battle to contain the growing threat of AMR, Dr. Lubroth urged them to practice good farm hygiene, get veterinary advice before using antimicrobials and to exchange best-practices with neighbours. 

He also called on farmers to demand quality animal feed without added antibiotics or other antimicrobials.

Each November, World Antibiotic Awareness Week reminds everyone of antibiotic resistance and encourages best practices among the general public, health workers and policy makers to avoid the further emergence and spread of antibiotic resistance.