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Empowering women in agriculture

Tackling global poverty and deforestation

Story by United Nations Development Programme March 21st, 2016

Women make up almost half the world’s farmers. Yet smaller farms and less access to education and finance makes it more difficult for them to adopt new technologies.

Research shows that their agricultural productivity in developing countries could increase 20-30 percent, given the same access to resources as men. Apart from poverty-reduction benefits, improving the productivity of existing agricultural lands is a critical way of addressing deforestation and climate change.

As part of its work through the Green Commodities Programme (GCP), UNDP is bringing together government, big business, small-scale farmers and other stakeholders to address deep-rooted sustainability issues in key commodity sectors in ten countries, including Indonesia and Ghana. And success involves closing the gender gap.

Indonesia: Women in Palm Oil

Narti harvests palm nuts

Across Indonesia’s palm oil producing regions, women are frequently seen working the plantations alongside men. Yet, despite providing a backbone to one of the nation’s most economically important industries, women can be marginalized and often have little access to financial resources, knowledge and technology to improve their crop yields.

Marni (left) and Endang

Marni and Endang are responsible for weighing the palm bunches before collection. Both dream of owning their own plantations so that they can better support their families.

Meanwhile, Istiqomah, a 36-year-old mother of two, says, “I need capital to improve the health of my plantation but because my yield is so low I would not be able to pay back a loan.”

Sarni (left) and Musilah

Sarini (left) is the founder and owner of an informal microfinance initiative exclusive to local women. Eight years ago, after observing the hardships experienced by oil palm farmers lacking financial capital, Sarini created Usaha Bersama, ‘’Joint Ventures.”


Serati starts her days at 7am, tasked with fertilizing, weeding, spraying pesticides and collecting fallen fruit. At midday she heads home to look after her children. It’s common for women working in plantations to experience the double burden of unpaid domestic work.

Woman at Indonesia Palm Oil Platform
Woman at Indonesia Palm Oil Platform

It’s vital that women have a seat at the table, sharing their voices and solutions so they can gain access to the support they need. Since 2014, the government-led and GCP-facilitated Indonesia Palm Oil Platform brings stakeholders together to identify issues and solutions to making the palm oil industry sustainable. Gender equality and empowerment are essential to its success.

Oil palms and woman on road
Narti gather palm fruits
Dayak women

Dayak women are particularly vulnerable in West Kalimantan, where the changes of land tenure from the community to the state and the patriarchal system has eroded women’s rights to land ownership. Indigenous women are also increasingly subject to short-term contracted labor in the plantations, which offer little future job security.

Meanwhile, women are important when it comes to spreading the word about new techniques and influencing others to invest in better practices, like intercropping market garden plants with oil palm.

Women in palm oil

Ghana: Women in Cocoa

Janet Akowuah

Cocoa is the main source of income for 800,000 small-scale farmers and 25% of the cocoa farmers are women. Sadly, this vital industry is contributing to high levels of deforestation.

Over the last two years, Janet has supplied over 400, 000 economic tree seedlings to cocoa farmers through a UNDP Green Commodities Programme effort set-up in collaboration with Ghana Cocoa Board and Mondelēz International’s* Cocoa Life Programme. The effort aims to rehabilitate cocoa landscapes while conserving and expanding forests, alongside providing incentives for cocoa farmers to adopt environmentally friendly best practices.

* the world’s biggest chocolate buyer

Women farmers and their tree seedlings
Tree seedlings

Since 2014, the UNDP has distributed over 800,000 seedlings to more than 9,600 cocoa farmers, of which 21 percent were women. Once grown, these trees shield the cocoa plants from sunlight, keep the soil moist during dry seasons, serve as carbon sinks, and provide oxygen. The idea is to increase the number of shade trees in cocoa farms and reverse the trend of forest degradation in cocoa-growing areas. With assistance, communities have planted seedlings along waterways and protected areas, resulting in rehabilitating 8,500 hectares of forest.

Mercy Adoma
Training by Cocoa Board

Mercy Adoma is one of the female cocoa farmers in the Asunafo North Municipality. The main source of her family’s livelihood is cocoa. “My children’s school fees and all family needs depend on cocoa,” she says. She has benefited from the tree-planting programme, revitalizing her plantation and making it more productive.

Mercy and her fellow farmers have also been receiving series of training from UNDP through the Cocoa Board’s Community extension agents on good agricultural practices, forest laws and regulations, and community tree tenure rights to help build their capacities for sustainable practices.

Footnote: Photos: Nicholas Hurt/ Rebecca Lake/ UNDP and UNDP Ghana
Indonesia and Ghana
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