Gender Equity in Value Chains in Malawi

In April I spent three weeks in Malawi on a Farmer-to-Farmer assignment on creating a gender action plan for Land o’Lakes International Development’s MSIKA inclusive fruit and vegetable value chains project. This was my ninth Farmer-to-Farmer assignment and my first with Land o’Lake ID.

Gender dynamics affect every segment of the fruit and vegetable value chains in Malawi because a lot of work is considered either men’s work or women’s work. Even certain crops are considered men’s crops or women’s crops. Women play an important role on the farm in all aspects of production, but often decisions about labor, what and where to sell and what inputs to use are made by men. Women are more likely to join farmers’ organizations to process or sell products or access credit, but often do not take leadership positions. One of the goals of the program is empower women to make more decisions on the farm and take positions of leadership in farmers’ organizations.


My job was to look at how the project was promoting inclusion of women in the value chains, design some tools and training materials to use to make the value chains more gender equitable, and train the staff on gender mainstreaming. I had my work cut out for me. Empowering women is a delicate issue, since most people—women included—are worried that “too much” women’s empowerment could cause problems at home.

Explaining the Asset Pentagon.

Explaining the Asset Pentagon.


I spent the first few days talking with staff to understand their work and how they see gender issues interacting with the project goals. The staff had great insight into the gender dyanamics at the agribusiness as well as the household level, but besides collecting data on male and female participation and encouraging women to get involved, they didn’t have a lot of tools to address gender equity. The mix of matrilineal and patrilineal tribes and the concentration of  Christians and Muslims in different areas meant that field staff from different regions had a complex job in negotiating gender issues.


Role playing to start a conversation about gender equity.

Role playing to start a conversation about gender equity.

The second week began with a workshop for the field staff. After learning about the basics of making programs more gender sensitive, we worked together to create a few modules that the field staff could use to start conversations about gender dynamics in farmers’ organizations and could use for goal setting and leadership training. I had come with a lot of ideas on how to start this process. Some of my ideas, like a graphing household assets in five different dimensions to change the way we think about vulnerability, were enthusiastically embraced. Others, like my idea that a role play would be more thought-provoking if men played women and women played men, were not. After much persuading I did get one group to try it (I even got the agronomist in a skirt!) but the idea was quickly scrapped and never spoken of again. (That’s OK, I’ve got it on video!).


After two days of training, it was show time! The field staff tried out their new toolkit on members of a potato cooperative and it was a big success. I finished up the assignment by visiting an all-women’s tomato processing cooperative to understand some of their challenges, training the office staff on gender mainstreaming and training the leaders of a fruit and vegetable cooperative on promoting gender equity in their coop.

Members of the Miawathu tomato processing cooperative sing me a song of thanks.

Members of the Miawathu tomato processing cooperative sing me a song of thanks.

Sack Gardening in Nigeria

Last year I had a great time working with leaders of farmers’ organizations and extension workers, so I was happy to have a chance to come back to Nigeria to work with the Winrock team again.


This time I built sack gardens with members of Awakening Nigeria for Agro-Allied International, an NGO in Kaduna. The idea is that the members will spread this knowledge to people in the Internally Displaced Persons camps, adopted villages and women who are less able to get out to the fields because of cultural reasons or insecurity. Sack gardening is almost as simple as it sounds: gardening in a sack instead of a pot. But it gets interesting when we use really big sacks—100-pound rice sacks or even larger. With a sack that large you have a large space for planting on top, but you can also cut slits in the sides and plant some leafy vegetables like lettuce, cabbage, kale or even onions. That multiplies your space and allows you to plant a small vegetable garden in the space that you could normally have just one tomato. Drainage becomes a problem with such a deep sack, so we have to add a column of gravel to help the water get all the way to the bottom.

You can see in the video how we used a large metal can with both ends cut out to form the column of gravel. As the sack is filled with soil, the can is filled with gravel. The can is slowly pulled up to guide the placement of the gravel. (On a side note, I ate a lot of canned tomatoes to get enough cans for this workshop!)

Just like my last experience in Nigeria, the participants were active, curious and eager to get involved. In two weeks I worked with three groups. Each group build at least one sack garden, and one enthusiastic group built six sack gardens, experimenting with different plants and soil mixes.

But just growing more vegetables doesn't improve nutrition. I also taught a nutrition component to help the participants improve family nutrition. Since the sack garden is perfect for growing leafy green vegetables, it is a great tool for Nigeria's biggest nutrition problems-- vitamin A and iron deficiencies.

Just a few weeks later the emails and photos are already coming in. Members of the ANAAI have already trained other members of their communities, including residents of an IDP camp in Kaduna. And the results keep multiplying!

Sack garden workshop Abuja

Your choice of coffee can change lives

Certified coffee supports farmers who fight climate change

It’s not easy being a coffee farmer. Droughts, disease, falling prices, climate change. All of these problems have larger consequences. When coffee farming becomes unprofitable farmers may discontinue, cutting down their coffee plants to raise cattle or sugar cane, or giving up farming altogether and emigrating to the United States. Farmers may make more money with these endeavors, but the environmental consequences are dire. Coffee farming, when sustainable practices are used, can sequester carbon and fight climate change better than other farming alternatives. But coffee is produced in tropical places in Latin America, Asia or Africa-- far removed from your breakfast table or local coffee shop. Certifications, like fair trade, Nespresso AAA, organic, or Rainforest Alliance certified let you know that your coffee was produced in a way that is environmentally or socially sustainable, depending on the certification. Certified coffee brings you a little closer to the farmer who produced your coffee.

The price of coffee is low right now, but you couldn’t be blamed for not noticing. As consumers we feel the highs as the droughts in Brazil or coffee leaf rust in Central America devastate crops and push the price of our morning cup ever higher. But we rarely get any relief when an oversupply on the market means that the price farmers get for their coffee barely covers the cost of production. But the farmers can’t help but notice when coffee prices fall.

Costa Rican coffee

Agricultural cooperatives are an important part of the story. Buyers prefer to work with a few large sellers, not with thousands of individual farmers. Cooperatives help small farmers pool their harvest to better compete on the world market. Cooperatives also support their member farmers, providing agricultural advice, processing and a fair price.

A recent report found that Costa Rican coffee farmers made a profit only two out of the last four growing seasons. I traveled to Costa Rica to meet the farmers and cooperatives who are participating in a variety of coffee certifications. Ninety-two percent of Costa Rica’s coffee farmers have small or medium-size farms. This makes cooperatives essential in Costa Rica.

Fair Trade for price stability

My first stop was Coop Pilangosta on the western state of Guanacaste. Coffee growing came late to this region and the hot dry summers make coffee growing a challenge. And it keeps getting harder.  In a few years climate change may completely eliminate coffee production from this area. Danilo and Marjalena struggle to make a living at coffee farming and to put their three children through college. ‘We bought the farm twenty-five years ago when we got married. It seemed like a nice thing…to be outdoors…to grow coffee and oranges. But if the rains come too late, we won’t have a crop this year.’ Every morning Marjalena checks the tiny flower buds on the coffee crop to see if the drought has caused them to abort. A few raindrops echo on the metal roof. ‘Keep going! Keep going!’ Danilo shouts at the sky.

About them same time that Danilo and Marjalena started farming, their cooperative became fair trade certified. Fair trade certification guarantees that farmers receive a minimum price for their coffee. This minimum price is not only good for farmers, it means that cooperatives can stay in business as well. ‘Fair Trade gave us the chance to survive when the price of coffee was low,’ says Oscar Campos, who was manager of the cooperative at the time when the price of coffee was at its lowest and coffee farmers were cutting down their coffee plants to raise cattle. ‘We had to make some changes to get the certification. We had to train the farmers and reduce the amount of pesticides. The farmers had to build better housing for the workers. But they were happy to do it because they got a good price for their coffee.’

Rainforest Alliance farm

Rainforest Alliance is for the birds

Next I visited coffee farmers growing high quality coffee on steep slopes of Tarrazu, Costa Rica. Coffee is the main industry here, and the steep slopes and high elevation make the beautiful landscape unsuitable for much else.

Jorge Ortiz, the agronomist at Coop Llano Bonito, navigates his pickup over the steep, unpaved roads. You wouldn’t want to attempt this without four-wheel drive. We get out of the pickup and shake hands with Raul, a coffee farmer with 5 hectares of land. Raul wants to plant coffee plants that are disease resistant so that he can use fewer pesticides, but he needs Jorge’s help.

The cooperative is trying to certify every member’s farm under Rainforest Alliance, but the farmers need to improve their farms before they are ready for certification. This is where Jorge’s job gets harder. He needs to train all of the cooperative’s members to reduce their pesticides even when they are faced with diseases like coffee leaf rust, the disease that devastated Guatemala’s coffee crop in 2014.

AAA for quality and the environment

Victor has two hectares of coffee on the top of a mountain in the West Valley. He inherited his father’s environmental conscience along with his coffee farm. The fluctuations in the coffee market have taken their toll and Victor has considered selling his farm and migrating to the US. ‘It’s a struggle,’ he says. But this year his cooperative started offering certifications to the farmers. If farmers make the required changes to their farms—adding shade trees to protect the soil and to provide a habitat for birds, reducing pesticides and improving the quality of his coffee—the cooperative can sell this coffee with the Nespresso AAA certification. Victor receives a small premium for the coffee the cooperative can sell with certification and this helps him make the changes to his farm. He had to make some improvements to his pesticide storage shed and plant more trees. ‘I already had a lot of trees on my property. When my brothers and I inherited this land my father said we had to keep part of it as forest. I just needed to plant more varieties of trees.’ Now he has oranges, guava, avocado and eucalyptus growing among the coffee plants.

The hardest part for Victor is the recordkeeping. He has six years of formal education and had never kept records before. ‘The agronomist helped me a lot,’ he says of Coop Victoria’s staff member who was hired specifically to help farmers comply with certifications.

The small premium he gets from the cooperative means that Victor can keep his farm. The certification gives him the incentive to do it in more sustainable way. ‘Conservation is very important. But the most important is that the kids eat.’

A Strong Cup of Coffee

Right now the supply of certified coffee outweighs demand. This limits the number of farmers that can participate in certifications and the financial incentives that they receive. Farmers need support to make these changes, and you can choose to support these farmers in their efforts to reduce chemical use and fight climate change. Without the support of consumers, farmers will lose their coffee farms, and the world will lose their environmental benefits. For its power to change the lives of small farmers, certified coffee is truly the strongest coffee your money can buy.

Read more about certified coffee here


Some of the most popular coffee certifications:

Fair Trade guarantees farmers a minimum price for their coffee. Farmers must be organized into democratic cooperatives and vote on how to distribute the 20 cents/pound social premium that cooperatives receive for certified coffee.

Nespresso AAA combines quality standards with environmental protection.

Organic certification strictly regulates the use of agrochemicals.

Rainforest Alliance certifies that producers provide a habitat for birds and other wildlife by planting shade and fruit trees on the coffee farm and by reducing agrochemicals. The certification also includes social protection for farm workers.

The Value of a Dollar in the Slum

*This is a post I originally wrote for the Innovate Development Blog

In Kampla, Uganda, one American dollar will buy you three liters of water, three mangoes, or about a pound of rice. One dollar will also buy you a few minutes with a sex worker in Bwaise, one of Kampala’s poorest and most densely-populated slums.

AFFCAD (Action for Fundamental Change and Development) runs a tour of Bwaise slum and two of the founders, Richard and Muhammed, were my guides there recently. We bought a few kilos of rice at a local shop and delivered bags, one kilo at a time, to residents of the slum. We visited these women in their homes, my guides translating as I asked the women what they were cooking (cow’s lungs in one hut and matooke, Uganda’s ubiquitous banana dish, in another, both to sell at a small profit to other slum residents). We bought a soda from one woman and chatted about her hopes to restock the small bar she runs from her house. Her plans were dependent on a micro-loan from AFFCAD.

Slum tours are often criticized for being exploitative, voyeuristic, possibly dangerous, but a well-run slum tour has the potential give participants a glimpse into the lives of the slum residents. Richard, one of the founders of AFFCAD, explains that the difference between a slum tour that exploits the community and one that benefits it is what the money is used for. The slum tour is the main source of funding for AFFCAD’s community projects, which include a school for children affected by HIV/AIDS. The school is AFFCAD’s answer to the overcrowded government schools, which may have a student-teacher ratio of 200 to one and are the only option for families who can’t pay private school fees. While AFFCAD’s schools are still overcrowded (70 to one student-teacher ratio), they are an improvement over government schools. Families pay what they can, which is sometimes nothing at all.

AFFCAD recently graduated their first class of 557 students from their Bwaise Youth Employment Center, a training facility built with an $870,000 grant from the US Embassy. Young adults from the slum study video editing, food service, fashion design and, by far the most popular, cosmetology. The founders, four friends who grew up in Bwaise slum, have also been honored with the Mohammed Ali Humanitarian Award, Kafka International Youth Icon Award and Slum Ambassador for Youth and Children.

My private tour reached the bottom of the hill and Richard told me to put my camera away; the women here do not like to be photographed. These were female sex workers who worked out of their homes. AFFCAD could do little for these women. At $1 per session and an average income of $5 per day, they had some of the highest earnings in the slum. All AFFCAD could offer them were condoms and education, and they did this without judgment or idealism.

As I was leaving, I asked Richard if he still lived in the slum. “I choose to live here. If you ignore a problem it will never go away.” A slum tour may sound like a depressing way to spend a Saturday morning, but I went away feeling optimistic about the work and the dedication of these four friends.

Hairdressing is the most popular training class at the Youth Employment Center.

Hairdressing is the most popular training class at the Youth Employment Center.

Surviving my First Workshop in French

Today I finished four days of training at the Center for Initiation and Perfection in Agriculture in Saint-Louis, Senegal. It was quite a challenge, but the participants were so warm and enthusiastic that it was a very rewarding experience. CIPA is the complete opposite of the Center for Professional Training. While they have an impressive gardening space – each student is responsible for three beds from seeding to harvest to selling the produce—there is only one small classroom, no computers, no internet. CIPA has a cooperative model in which the students sell the produce from their garden and split the proceeds with the school. The students have no scholarship so they need the extra money for living expenses. Those who pass a test do not pay tuition.

The training center is transitioning into a competencies based approach to teaching. While their teaching method is quite practical—what can prepare students for a job in horticulture better than running their own business? —the competencies and evaluation methods were not well defined. I ran a workshop with the professors and a few members of the local horticulture sector to help the center define these parameters. This was a completely new experience for some of the professors. They had a lot of experience in horticulture and in teaching, but it became more and more apparent that the curriculum existed only in the heads of the professors—nothing was written down. Since most of these professors were getting very close to retirement, getting this all down on paper seemed like a good place to start.

We worked for four days learning about competencies, writing competencies, creating evaluation rubrics. We kept our strength up with a mid-morning coffee break with snacks, hibiscus tea and baobab juice. The last day of training we observed one of the professors giving a class on soil preparation. Everyone got caught up in the moment. Once we removed the weeds we couldn’t stop. “Can’t we finish preparing the bed?” “Can’t we transplant the lettuce?” After three days in a dark classroom talking about horticulture it was nice to get our hands dirty.

I felt exhausted but satisfied by the end of the workshop. I had a headache and I could barely speak English, let alone French. It was the first workshop I had taught completely in French (with the help of Adama, the program assistant who helped me out with some words or simply repeated what I said when they didn’t understand my accent). At the end of the workshop I declared to everyone “Nous sommes fini!” They giggled a bit. The woman in the back politely corrected me. “Nous avons fini,” means “we have finished.” Nous sommes fini means "we are finished" (as in dead, as in get me out, I'm done!).

Not dead, we are still fighting!

The impressive school garden at CIPA.

The impressive school garden at CIPA.

A Dry Riverbed That Your Cat Would Love

The Senegalese don’t keep cats as pets. That’s why I found myself on a dry riverbed scooping dirt into a plastic bag using a cut off water bottle as a shovel. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

For our third day of training at the Center for Professional Training the teachers decided they would like to see an example of one of the interactive lessons that I introduced them to on Day Two. I offered to give a lesson on soil science to show them how to engage the students in the classroom without a lot of expensive materials. I have taught this class many times to Master Gardeners in the US and I can usually find everything I need in my closet. But this time I was going to need to go shopping, so I enlisted the help of Ndiamé, our driver. He seemed like the kind of guy who knew where to find things…

First we stopped at the market. My lesson was going to start with a discussion of the difference in the relative sizes of soil particles. I needed a big ball to represent a grain of sand and something flat and round to represent a particle of silt. A beach ball and a Frisbee would have been perfect, but this wasn’t Miami Beach. I was going to have to get creative. I settled on a soccer ball and the lid of a pan. I had a dime in my purse that could represent clay. The soccer ball had the added benefit of making me really popular with a group of boys who I gave the ball to after the class.

In the second part of the class I show how the relative size of each particle affects water infiltration. Sand was easy enough to find—it was everywhere; in the road, in the garden, in my socks. I gave up on the idea of silt; I didn’t think I could find a pure sample. Clay might be a challenge as well. When I give this lesson in the US I usually use cat litter to show how texturized clay has great water infiltration. I pour a glass of water into a clear water bottle full of cat litter to show how quickly it is absorbed. Then I make like a cat and destroy all the texture to show how working wet soil destroys its capacity for water infiltration.

I was pretty sure Senegalese cats don’t go about their business in boxes, but I had to ask. I described the concept of a litter box to Ndiamé. It’s really a ridiculous thing when you have to put it into words…

Ndiamé showed amazing self-restraint by not rolling his eyes at the crazy things Americans do. He hesitated a second (possibly because I had already confessed to being a cat lover) and said ‘In my village we hunt cats and eat them.’ And just like that I gave up on my search for cat litter. I was going to have to find a natural sample, but where? Hang on, what’s that? —amid sand for as far as the eye can see we passed a dry riverbed with cracked soil- a sure sign of a high clay content. Stop the car! I need some of that!!

The Woman Who Plants

I just arrived in Senegal yesterday for a Farmer 2 Farmer consulting project for Winrock International. Already I’ve been briefed on my assignment and I’m on my way to Saint-Louis near the Mauritanian border. The five-hour drive is a good way to get to see the reality of agriculture in Senegal. I’m here to help two horticulture training centers improve their horticulture curricula. The goal is to transition from a theory-based educational system to a more practical, hands-on approach.

As we travel farther north we can see the desert encroaching on the agricultural land. How do they grow anything in what looks like pure sand? We are a long way from the deep mid-Western soils I’m used to. On the other hand, I’ve never felt so much like Matt Damon—it’s a little like trying to grow potatoes on Mars!

The conditions in the garden at the first training center we visit, the Center for Professional Training, are no better. The school was lucky enough to get a grant from the government of Luxembourg to expand its classroom space and buy some materials. Unfortunately, the teaching garden was pushed into the small courtyard between the classrooms—on the foundation of the old building! In some places the soil depth is no more than 4 inches! The gardening conditions are difficult, but the teachers seem excited about the suggestions that I gave them for better utilizing the space. I suggested some vertical gardening along the back wall using recycled materials like water bottles and collaborating with the handicrafts classes to build some raised beds.

I also brought along a book for the teachers. It’s called Wangari Maathai, La Femme Qui Plante des Millions d’Arbres (Wangari Maathai, The Woman Who Plants Millions of Trees). It is a beautifully illustrated book about Wangari Maathai, the Kenyan Nobel-Laureate who started the Green Belt Movement. I’m hoping that, along with some videos and lesson plans that I gave them, the school will start a tree planting project. It would be a great opportunity to get the community involved and build some social capital in the school.