A female Indian farmer dries harvested rice from a paddy field. Although women are becoming increasingly involved in agribusiness, the industry is still dominated at all levels by men. (Photo by Biju Boro/AFP via Getty Images)

Agribusiness, as an industry, is as complex as it is essential. It involves a lengthy value chain that stretches from land to consumers and encompasses a wide array of supporting services.

In every part of the chain, women face disproportionate obstacles.

These barriers start at the very first link, in agriculture, but they persist right through to agribusiness consultancy services and access to finance.

Gender equality is a worldwide problem and it reaches every sector. The UN’s Sustainable Development Goal number five is gender equality and empowering all women and girls by 2030, an objective and deadline that have been seriously dented by the Covid-19 pandemic.

However, Mariana Graça, founder and principal consultant at Mg Advisory, an agribusiness consultancy with a focus on sub-Saharan Africa, says agribusiness has its own unique set of hurdles for women. “I do feel that in agribusiness there are particular issues and particular problems that as women we face that maybe are not as prevalent in other sectors,” she says.

The issues start at ground level, with land ownership.

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This land is his land

A 2018 paper from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) highlights the staggering reality of women and land ownership: globally, less than 15% of landowners are women, with a distribution ranging from 5% in the Middle East and North Africa to 18% in Latin America and the Caribbean.

I do feel that in agribusiness, there are particular issues and particular problems that as women we face that maybe are not as prevalent in other sectors. Mariana Graça, Mg Advisory

Graça explains that this partially stems from a lack of generational wealth, and not only in developing economies. “Until not so long ago women weren’t able to own land, even in places such as the UK. The result is that women have not had the opportunity to build up generational wealth,” she says, adding that inheritance of land and assets has traditionally fallen on male heirs.

This translates to women having fewer assets and less access to finance, as they will often be asked for collateral they don’t have in order to access lending.

There is progress in some patches: the latest Census of Agriculture in the US, from 2017, showed that 36% of all farm producers in the country are women and that more than half of the farms in the US have at least one female decision maker.

However, if the root of the disparities takes hold at the grower and land-owner level, they continue to flower further up the chain, where few women are found in senior positions in major agribusiness companies.

Networks to break up the boys club

Women are coming together to help raise each other up, through networking circles and dedicated events. One such example is the Women’s Impact Network, co-founded by Dr Shima Barakat from the University of Cambridge, which is completely interdisciplinary.

Barakat explains that the network has two main aims: increasing the visibility of women and reinforcing the notion that women can do more together than alone.

She highlights the importance of not only having mentors, but “sponsors”, which the Women’s Impact Network encourages.

“Sponsors are people who will mention your names when opportunities come up,” says Barakat. “In many cases, particularly as you go up in your career, opportunities start to happen behind closed doors.”

Krista Soda, a senior consultant at Nationwide Agribusiness Insurance Company, points to the success of the Women in Agribusiness Summit, which has grown over the past decade. Her employer has become a sponsor of the event and has set up its own women in agribusiness committee for the company.

Encouragingly, men are also joining the conversation and learning about the obstacles women face in the sector, explains Soda.

“Something I have noticed in the Women in Agriculture Summit over the past seven years is that more and more men are attending, and we have had some male speakers too,” she says.

The new generations are also developing an interest in agriculture, and more young women are choosing it as their career path.

A new generation of women in agribusiness

Brought up in a four-generation corn and soybean farm in Indiana, US, Kacee Bohle is the founder of the Corn Belt Cadence, a networking community for those in the agriculture and agribusiness world. In her experience,  more and more women are taking up commonly male-dominated roles within agriculture.

“Within agriculture, I am seeing women in more leadership roles, I am seeing women in roles that were traditionally male,” says Bohle, adding that men are retiring after long careers and young women are stepping into those roles.

“The generations are starting to turn over right now, and I think there are a lot of options opening up,” adds Bohle.

Women are pivotal to food security

Empowering women in agriculture is also important for achieving food security and economic recuperation in a post-Covid world in developing countries, according to the heads of the three UN food agencies – the FAO, the International Fund for Agricultural Development and the World Food Programme – in a press release ahead of their joint International Women’s Day event on 8 March.

“The world is home to more than 1.1 billion girls under the age of 18, who have the potential of becoming the largest generation of female leaders, entrepreneurs and change-makers ever seen for the better future,” said FAO director-general Qu Dongyu. “Yet, women and girls continue to face persistent structural constraints that prevent them from fully developing their potential and hinder their efforts of improving their lives as well as their households and communities.

Within agriculture, I am seeing women in more leadership roles, I am seeing women in roles that were traditionally male. Kacee Bohle, the Corn Belt Cadence

“Women and girls can play a crucial role in the response to the Covid-19 pandemic and in particular in transforming our agri-food systems. We all need to work together to spark the necessary changes to empower women and girls, particularly those in rural areas.”

Furthermore, the FAO has announced that there is research showing that by giving women farmers access to the same productive resources as men, yields could increase by 20–30% and total agricultural output by 2.5–4%, “lifting 100–150 million people out of hunger”.

There is a long way ahead for women in all areas of agribusiness, from agriculture and working the land to consultancy services, but as the research shows, lifting up women and moving further along the road to equality will not only benefit the female half of the population, but the whole world.