The innovative use of female social mobilisers and a whole-of-family extension approach has created opportunities for women to participate in training to improve the value of vegetable crops and incomes for smallholder farmers in Pakistan.
Smallholders make up 70% of Pakistan’s farming community, in which men and women have defined roles in agricultural systems and social practices that can restrict the involvement of women.
The international not-for-profit organisation CABI (Centre for Agriculture and Bioscience International) has led a 5-year ACIAR-supported project to improve the vegetable value chains for smallholders, which concluded in December 2022.
The project focused on value chains for onions in the Sindh province, and for tomatoes and potatoes in the Punjab province. Developing a model for a gender-inclusive value chain was a fundamental part of the project.
CABI project manager Mr Muhammad Asif said social mobilisers employed in each of the 3 value chains played a critical role in the multidisciplinary research teams, helping to engage female farmers and farm workers to implement project activities.
‘Women have designated roles in farming, and these are often the roles that are crucial to improving the value of produce.
‘The project as a whole helped to move farmers from a production to a market-driven approach,’ said Mr Asif.
‘Whole families were involved in the value-chain discussions, so we were engaging youth with this new perspective as well.’
The project team directly trained 343 vegetable farmers (172 men, 135 women and 36 youth) in nursery production, crop management, post-harvest processes and marketing, indirectly reaching another 1,166 farmers (779 men, 291 women and 96 youth).
Mr Asif said the 67 project staff included 45 men and 22 women, who identified value-chain constraints and developed interventions to increase product quality and production efficiency. The result was a significant increase in household income and crop gross margins per acre for the 5 villages involved
Catering for local culture
Gender research leader Dr Gomathy Palaniappan, from The University of Queensland, led the social research activities in the project.
She said working with the established gender roles in the community was built into the project, catering for local cultural practices. This included adding female social mobilisers to the project team, and convincing male farmers to allow female farmers and farm labourers to speak with female project staff separately.
‘We were fortunate to find women to take on the role who were based near the villages we were working with, or who were connected to the villages, and could visit regularly for both formal and informal conversations without being seen as intruders.
‘They were able to build trust, to identify male champions who supported female family members taking part, as well as female champions who were willing to take on the training, and even to train others,’ explained Dr Palaniappan.
Longer-lasting onions in Sindh
The Sindh province is a major centre for onion production in Pakistan and CABI Research Officer Mr Azeem Naqvi said that early research identified harvest processes carried out by women were critical to improving the quality of produce.
Even though the research team provided training to men about the importance of harvesting practices, Mr Naqvi said they realised that training women directly was essential to implementing the improvements.
He highlighted the role of the Sindh team’s female social mobiliser Ms Iqra Rajput as key to gaining support within the community to allow women access to the training. This in turn accelerated the adoption of the improved practices.
Ms Rajput was already known to locals through her father’s business in the village. She was able to identify male farmers who supported the provision of women with access to new information and skills, and she often provided training to women herself.
As a result of a simple change in the way tops are cut from the onion bulbs and infield ‘curing’ of onions, female farmers were able to extend the shelf life of onions from 4 to 6 months, while improving quality and reducing spoilage.
At market, onion growers received a 67% premium for their crop, and the new skills of female harvesters earned them a 20% increase in pay.
Tomato nursery enterprises
Punjab is a major growing region for both tomatoes and potatoes, and 2 villages producing each crop took part in the project.
In the tomato-growing villages, women’s activities include producing seedlings. They commonly establish nursery plots near their homes, and seedlings are later planted out into family fields or sold to other farmers.
Value-chain analysis identified that improving the quality of seedlings could improve the health and yields of plants, improving total productivity, quality and incomes for smallholder farmers.
Through the female social mobiliser Ms Narjis Fatima, the project team was able to introduce the concept of improved nursery production to local women. This includes the use of seedling trays, quality potting mix and a protective greenhouse tunnel they share the use of, all of which have helped to increase germination rates and produce more vigorous seedlings.
Tomato farmers using these seedlings earned a 28% price increase for the improved quality of their tomatoes. Nursery skills have created new income opportunities, with 2 women establishing their own enterprises to sell seedlings to local farmers and neighbouring villages.
Initially, 2 women took on the new nursery practices, and this grew to more than 20 women over 3 years, with the use of nursery-raised seedlings becoming a recognised practice in local villages.
From seed potatoes to kitchen gardens
In the potato-growing region of Punjab, women play a role in grading potatoes at harvest. The project’s technical research identified that in addition to grading the harvested crop, grading seed potatoes and applying a fungicide prior to planting could reduce disease in the crop and improve the yields and quality of the harvest.
The project team worked with the local farming communities, and with individual farming families, to incorporate these new activities into the role of female farmers and farm workers.
Social mobiliser Ms Rahila Ishaq said part of her role was to make women aware of how they could work with the men in their lives to improve family incomes. This proved an important motivating factor for some participants in the project, expanding their view to beyond the boundaries of their own village for work, and for the education of their children.
‘As a result of their new skills through the ACIAR-supported project, there are now groups of 10 to 15 female labourers who travel to nearby villages to work,’ said Ms Ishaq.
Her work also highlights the value of social mobilisers in addressing local needs beyond the immediate scope of the project.
Ms Ishaq said through her engagement with women in their homes, she was able to help them start kitchen gardens, which were previously unknown in the area. The project team helped to source seed for summer and winter vegetables and provided training in seed preservation for future crops.
Over 3 years, the number of women with kitchen gardens increased from 3 to 25, providing families with fresh vegetables, improving their diets and saving money.
Collectively, social mobilisers have also helped to connect families with access to government and healthcare services and assisted children with schoolwork. They have acted as role models, travelling independently and demonstrating how women can contribute to family incomes working beyond the boundaries of their home villages.
ACIAR Research Program Manager, Horticulture, Ms Irene Kernot said economic and social outcomes for women have been an important part of the project, in addition to the improved production and value from crops for families.
‘As a result of new skills learned through the project, many female participants have increased their income through better connection to the value chain and have gained confidence from families and communities as contributors to improved livelihoods.
‘Younger family members, both boys and girls, have also been exposed to new ideas and ways of thinking that will shape future farming practices and their own aspirations,’ said Ms Kernot.
ACIAR PROJECT: ‘Strengthening vegetable value chains in Pakistan for greater community livelihood benefits’ (HORT/2016/012)