This blog is written by Raymond Brandes, while being on assignment for SNV as the Global Manager of the Enhancing Opportunities for Women’s Enterprises (EOWE) programme, funded by the Dutch government as part of the Funding Leadership and Opportunities for Women (FLOW)  framework.

Female-led enterprise development could be an active enzyme for delivering sustainable development. However, to effectively address the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) female-led enterprise development must be proactively led by setting a strategy that generates shared value not just for customers and shareholders, but for wider society and the environment over the long term. In a women’s agricultural enterprise development programme like EOWE climate change adaptation and mitigation, nutrition, women’s economic empowerment and gender equality are important cross-cutting issues to be addressed in agribusiness agendas.

While we know that transforming agriculture in vulnerable regions can deliver prosperity in the form of food, income and jobs, the long-term sustainability of shifting from subsistence to more intensive and commercial practices faces huge challenges. The agricultural sector already accounts for 70 percent of rapidly depleting freshwater resources, is a leading factor in natural habitat and biodiversity loss, and contributes to a quarter of total human greenhouse gas emissions.

The intervention strategy of SNV’s EOWE programme builds on the Balancing Benefits framework which is developed by SNV as a gender-transformative, integrated fourfold approach which stimulates household and community dialogue to challenge gender norms that shape resource allocation patterns. Men are engaged in the dialogues too, and role models and community influencers are identified to act as change agents. SNV’s objective is to grow women’s enterprise’s viability and profitability and encourage more women to start agribusinesses, while supporting the improvement of markets and governance in favour of equitable opportunities for women.

Balancing Benefits Framework

Climate Change

Climate change is a global phenomenon, with impacts that are already being experienced on a human level. It is recognized that it is those who are already the most vulnerable and marginalized who experience the greatest impacts (IPCC, 2014), and are in the utmost need of adaptation strategies in the face of shifts in weather patterns and resulting environmental phenomena. At the same time, it is the vulnerable and marginalized who have the least capacity or opportunity to prepare for the impacts of a changing climate or to participate in negotiations on mitigation. As women constitute the largest percentage of the world’s poorest people, they are most affected by these changes. Children and youth, especially girls, as well as elderly women, are often the most vulnerable.

The need to adapt is becoming increasingly urgent as our climate changes. Globally, over 2 billion people depend on agriculture as a livelihood. Decisive action is needed to support 790 million who remain food insecure in developing countries. As SNV we are interested in discovering how transformational gender and climate adaptation concepts can be mainstreamed across programmes, and if there is collaborative work we can do to develop it further.


Malnutrition affects one in two people globally, including 162 million children under the age of five who are stunted (i.e. have low height for age) and two billion people who are deficient in one or more micro-nutrients. The task of securing food and nutrition worldwide is multidisciplinary and access to food, food distribution and food production are equally important and cannot succeed independently. If household-level effects of agriculture on nutrition exist, they are most likely the result of one or a combination of the following factors: higher/lower agricultural income, market imperfections (resulting in greater consumption of own production) and gender-related factors. Household agricultural production has direct and important linkages with household dietary patterns and the nutrition of individual members. The magnitude of impacts of these different factors on food security and nutrition may vary as a result of differences in e.g. commodities, contexts, locations or the intensity of people’s participation in programmes.

To tackle this food security-sustainability challenge, Sustainable Development Goal 2 (or SDG2, one of 17 holistic SDGs) was established by the UN in 2015 to “end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture” by 2030. SDG2 comes on the back of some good progress, particularly for low-income smallholder farmers. For example, in sub-Saharan Africa, regional programmes, such as the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Program (CAADP), support governments to invest at least 10% of annual public expenditures on agriculture (although recent SDG2 updates show more work is needed here), with the region seeing cereal production and yields increase by 71% and 49% respectively since 2000.

Women’s Economic Empowerment and Gender Equality

Women have a critical role to play in all of the SDGs, with many targets specifically recognizing women’s empowerment and gender equality as both the objective and part of the solution. SDG5 is known as the stand-alone gender goal because it is dedicated to achieving related goals.

Gender equality is well recognized as a development concern and is believed to be prerequisite to poverty reduction, ensuring food security and sustainable development. Gender mainstreaming involves making women’s and men’s concerns an integral dimension of the design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of policies and programmes.

Gender mainstreaming recognises that equality of women can be achieved by identifying and addressing practical and strategic needs of women, men and youth. Promoting a gender perspective in development allows that women and men get equal access to and control over resources, development benefits and decision making. Failure to recognise and integrate differential needs of women and men in policy and programme design and implementation leads to formulation of gender blind policies and projects. This in turn results in inequitable and ineffective delivery of services, uneven distribution of resources and low participation and unsustainable development. Hence promoting gender mainstreaming as a strategy to advance gender equality is imperative.

Mainstreaming gender is the process of assessing the implications of any planned action on women and men including legislation, policies or programmes, in any area and at all levels. It is a strategy for making the concerns and experiences of women as well as of men an integral part of the design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of policies and programmes in political, economic and societal spheres, so that women and men benefit equally, and inequality is not perpetuated. The ultimate goal of mainstreaming is to achieve gender equality. [1]

In order to set up abilities to effectively mainstream a cross-cutting issue like gender, it is key that the right enabling environment is established. In particular, one of the key starting points is ensuring the policies and procedures of a programme, project and-or organisation are structured in such a way that they incorporate cross-cutting issues. Mainstreaming of cross-cutting themes should be reciprocal: cross-cutting dimensions will be incorporated into capacity development actions and measurement of impact and appropriate capacity development tools and methods will be developed and used.

Women members of a producer group waiting to sell their produce to brokers in Kenya (photo credit: SNV Kenya).

The Role of Agribusiness

Clearly, to achieve sustainable production and effective markets, global agribusiness plays a vital role. Without the inputs, technologies and investments that it provides, achieving SDG2 (and its related SDGs) is practically impossible. While many individual food businesses have established sustainability programmes, collective actions and subject matter on the combined role of global agribusiness and sustainable development is limited, and the sector faces continued pressure around issues such as non-food crops, labour standards, environmental performance and land use.

Alongside SNV’s global strategic partnerships and value chain innovations, shared value is achieved by establishing environmentally sustainable initiatives to address needs like water, carbon emissions and biodiversity, and fair, socially inclusive policies for employees and the wider supply chain. In so doing, it enables the sector to collectively tackle SDG2 in parallel to its inter-linked goals for equality (SDG5, SDG10), sustainable consumption and production (SDG12) and climate action (SDG13).

Many countries use agriculture as a direct means to improve food security and nutrition of agricultural households implicitly assuming that these household-level effects exist and that their magnitude is economically meaningful. Correspondingly, policies that promote commercialisation of agriculture, or generally seek to expand the value of agricultural production, assume that enhanced income generation is sufficient to improve food security and nutrition and that composition of household production does not matter. However, the first challenge in empirically establishing a farm-level relationship between agriculture and nutrition is identifying the right set of variables to analyse. If a direct link between production and consumption is anticipated, that is, farm households are expected to consume their own production, then the production of certain products or even the diversity of production are hypothesised to influence nutrition outcomes. In that case, the production of particular products or sets of products, or a production diversity index might be appropriate agriculture measures.

Alternatively, if the expectation is that higher income leads to improved nutrition, measures such as the value of production or agricultural income might be the most relevant. However, even the use of an income measure is complicated by the possibility that the income source (mental accounting) and the recipient (intra-household allocation) may influence income use suggesting a need to carefully consider how agricultural income is disaggregated. As such, a range of agriculture measures might be used.

Addressing Inequalities

Achieving sustainable development is impossible without addressing inequalities which hinder people from accessing opportunities and utilising their potential to change their own situation. Gender based inequalities deepen the disadvantages of people, reinforcing their poverty.

SNV’s EOWE programme works with its partners to enable female farmers/entrepreneurs (and their families) to enhance their productivity and income to improve their living condition. The majority of men, women and children in low income countries suffering from food insecurity are farmers on small plots of land, often under one hectare, and/or livestock pastoralists. If business is to make a difference in their lives, it must actively engage these groups by providing them with opportunities to move from simple subsistence to producing a marketable surplus while still investing in their own land, or by supporting the creation of higher value products from their produce. As women represent a significant portion of smallholder farmers and constitute the more disadvantaged group of the community they are a key target of any engagement.

Private sector actors can achieve this through out-growers schemes that provide nearby smallholders with the inputs, finance and technologies/techniques required for successful production. To the same ends, contracts with farmer cooperatives can also enable private sector actors further up the value chain to support smallholders.

Gender as a critical dimension of climate-smart agriculture

The existence of social inequalities within rural areas globally due to natural differences (i.e. sex) and socio-economic reasons (i.e. gender and economic status) shape access to opportunities and benefits from services and resources. The disadvantaged position of women in married and female headed households has a drawback on achieving increased production and productivity.

Furthermore, agricultural growth is one solution to tackling issues such as food and nutrition insecurity and poverty that climate change exacerbates. We simply are not going to see the transformative changes in agriculture and food systems that we need to see without also tackling gender issues.

With more variable rainfall and higher temperatures, most farmers will have to shift what they produce, and how they produce it. This includes putting more time, money and effort into soil and water management practices, planting trees, growing legumes, adopting stress tolerant varieties, shifting from maize to sorghum, or from cattle to goats, to name just a few examples of key climate-smart opportunities for smallholders in many regions of the world. New research is showing just how grossly neglected and under-served smallholders, especially women farmers, within food systems in lower-income countries have been. Women don’t receive the agricultural and climate information they need, and have much less access to inputs, credit and services than men. These women not only produce food, but they also prepare it and are responsible for the nutrition of the family. So, there is definitely something wrong with this picture and a significant opportunity to address this glaring gap.

At the farm-level, climate-smart agriculture is something farmers are already doing, but with varying degrees of success. Most recognise and are trying to cope with their changing climates. These climate-smart practices include tasks such as planting fruit, fodder and fuel trees on farms. These can save much time and effort for those women who go out to collect fodder and fuel wood, for example. They also can include soil conservation efforts like SRI (System of Rice Intensification) that SNV and our EOWE programme advocate for and apply in Vietnam, which in many circumstances may greatly decrease women’s time spent on weeding and other (rice) farming tasks. Thus, we need to understand the costs and benefits of these practices, not just for households, but also for individuals and the environments in which they live.

Female rice farmers using SRI technique in Vietnam (photo credit: SNV Vietnam).

Turning these challenges into opportunities however, is easier said than done. How can we best tap into the potential of women farmers? How can we keep young people in farming and create good jobs for them elsewhere in the food system?

Domestic and multi-national agribusiness can support the SDGs by taking collective action through regional and global governance structures that provide leadership, advocacy, insights (and where needed funding). Efforts set up by the Dutch government, Wageningen University & Research and the Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN), a (UN) country-led movement advancing health and development through improved nutrition, show good promise. While having appropriate representation from global agribusiness will be a key success factor, so will effective partnerships with wider stakeholders.

Regional agricultural growth clusters/corridors can help generate foreign exchange for investment into technology upgrades and other purchases. Many developing countries are focused not just on domestic production of staple crops, but also on the value-added processing and trading of exportable cash crops. This has been successfully achieved through the development of agricultural growth corridors and clusters, where investments into the necessary technologies, infrastructure and enterprises can enable economies of scale. By targeting suitable existing agro-ecologies, many countries have set strong plans for the increased production of one or two key crops within one area, supported by enhanced aggregation, markets and agro-processing.

As long as they are planned carefully and supported by safeguards to secure local food security, prices and land rights (as well as integrating environmentally sustainable, socially inclusive initiatives), these programmes are an important part of the productivity and sustainable development picture. They typically have buy-in at the highest levels of government, and offer agribusiness excellent opportunities for first mover advantages in areas where greater certainty can be given to new investments and their value chains. In sectors such as livestock, cereals and horticultural crops in developing countries, agribusiness should seek out the implementers of national and regional agricultural growth corridor programmes for a more focused approach to expansion.

[1] Agreed conclusions 1997/2 Mainstreaming the gender perspective into all policies and programmes in the UN system. Excerpt from A/52/3, Report of the Economic and Social Council for 1997.

Note: this blog was slightly adapted from the version that was originally published on the SNV webpage of the EOWE programme: