Women's participation in high value agricultural commodity chains in Kenya: Strategies for closing the gender gap

Women in developing countries generally have less access to and control over the productive resources and services that are necessary for increasing agricultural yields and moving from subsistence to market-oriented production.

A recent paper in the Journal of Rural Studies investigates women’s participation in high value agricultural commodity chains in Kenya. Specifically, the paper conducts a disaggregated gender analysis of avocado production and marketing at the farm level in order to identify context-specific strategies that can improve women’s access to and gains from markets for high value agricultural commodities.

The study was conducted in the Kandara and Marani districts in Kenya, which both have the highest concentration of avocado production and marketing in the country. The study used a mixed methods approach to collect: results from focus group discussions with small-scale producers, structured producer household surveys, case studies of farmer groups, trader surveys, and interviews with actors along the value chain, including exporters, processors, and input suppliers. All data collection tools were disaggregated by gender, and the study analyses how and to what extent women are integrated in these value chains.

Avocado production in Kenya, for both export and domestic consumption, is dominated by small-scale producers, although a few large-scale export companies also engage in production. The value chain for locally marketed avocados is short and consists of only a few actors, while the chain for exported avocados is elaborate and includes more actors. Similarly, avocados for export are generally of high quality and fetch a relatively high price. By comparison, avocados for domestic consumption are of poorer quality and fetch a relatively low price. The most common typology of producers are male managers in male-headed households (49 percent and 41 percent, respectively ) followed by female managers in female-headed households (35 percent and 37 percent, respectively); the other typology - female managers in male-headed households - makes up a relatively small percentage of total producers. Female managers in female-headed households are mostly widows, while those in male-headed households manage avocado production because their husbands are engaged in off-farm employment.

The paper investigates to what extent women control productive assets and have decision-making power over avocado production, marketing, and revenue. In the export chain, women in male-managed and male-headed households are generally involved in the production stage (tending to the trees and supervising harvesting), but they rely on their spouses for capital. Additionally, avocado fields are mostly owned by men, with the exception of women in female-headed households. Women in male-headed households therefore make limited decisions regarding resource allocation.

The study finds that in the export chain, women managers in female-headed households, on the other hand, have full control over production, marketing, and revenue. However, these women are found to have significantly lower levels of income than both men and women managers in male-headed households. This is because women managers in female-headed households use significantly lower levels of inputs and have lower levels of training compared to men and women in male-headed households; thus, women managers in female-headed households produce lower quality fruit.

Conversely, in the domestic avocado chain, women tend to be fully integrated in the production and marketing of avocados because participation in the chain requires lower levels of resources. In the domestic chain, avocados are sold at very low prices and in small quantities, which makes the returns less attractive to men. Overall, the study suggests that as value chains become more commercialized and profitable, men are likely to take over the enterprise, thereby relegating women to lower value commodity chains.

Based on these findings, the paper analyses which interventions can help close this unequal access to resources and opportunities among men and women.  The authors argue that successful interventions will differ depending on the different typologies of women involved and the degree of commercialization in the value chain. For instance, female managers in households that are led by women automatically assume the role of the household head and hence have access to, and control over, the household’s productive resources; these women also have more access to farmer groups. Thus, the movement of these women into high value avocado chains is relatively straightforward because the move is mainly economic rather than socio-cultural. Strategies that aim at providing enabling environments for these women, such as tailoring financial products to fit their needs, are likely to have a large impact.

Upgrading the role of women managers in male-headed households, on the other hand, requires strategies that focus on the socio-cultural constraints that limit women’s participation in decision-making. Such interventions could include, for instance, the revision of policies or laws to allow joint membership in producer groups (currently only household heads are allowed to join producer groups).

In the case of male-headed households in which men control production and marketing activities and women, in most cases, participate by providing labor and only make decisions regarding the marketing of lower quality avocados, a multifaceted approach is needed. In this context, interventions could include efforts to promote value chain inclusiveness, such as intra-household information sharing and joint membership in producer groups. In the long run, interventions that address women’s socio-cultural constraints through increasing land rights and financial resources for women are also likely to help close the gender gap.

By: Bas Paris