Harvesting Hope for Women in Rural Zambia

As a social enterprise, Shakti.ism is all about social impact, supporting small business and women’s empowerment. By supporting other social businesses with a similar ethos to empower marginalised women, we aim to spread awareness about other brilliant social initiatives, and hopefully empower even more women!

This month, we’re lucky to have what I hope is the first of many guest posts by incredible change-makers that are tackling social problems with creative business solutions. First up is my inspiring friend Michelle, who is a co-founder of The Harvest Fund, a US-based nonprofit organisation that helps entrepreneurially-minded, small-scale Zambian female farmers access agricultural innovations and microfinance.

Enjoy!

– Jitna


2 billion people worldwide live in small-scale farming households, where farming generates the household’s income. Of Africa’s 1.2B people, 25% are small-scale farmers. They are descendants of generational farmers, yet, the practices remain outdated. The majority of small-scale farmers have no other economic option because of their rural location (too expensive to travel/move to the city for work) and lack of formal skills. Unfortunately, for these households, their poor access to infrastructure – e.g. mobile connectivity, banks, and roads — worsens their economic situation. In many African nations, women increasingly constitute the farm labour force. For example, in Zambia, a nation in southern Africa, 78% of women are engaged in agriculture. In contrast, the country ranks 113 out of 117 on the Global Hunger Index scale. As men venture to cities in search of work, women, who are often poorly educated, farm because they have no other formal workforce skills. Moreover, staying at home on the farm allows the women to watch over their children.

Zambian children in front of a hut

Research from the last decade shows that women farmers often lack the same resources as men. For example, many women do not have bank accounts, modern agricultural knowledge, or mobile phone and data connectivity. This makes it less likely for them to even be aware of basic agricultural tools, such as spray hoses, water pumps, drip irrigation systems, grain storage, tractor services, improved seed, etc. Therefore, year after year, they rely on recycled seed and use their bare hands and basic hoes to plow the land. Whatever meagre harvests they cultivate, they feed their children, stretching the food for as long as possible. Eventually, after the food reserves run low, the family begins to subsist on one meal a day. 

Research also shows that women in the Global South reinvest 90% of their earnings back into their households – nutrition, healthcare, education, etc. Even from our personal experience, when speaking to the initial cohorts of The Harvest Fund, we saw that the women were excited at the possibility of earning enough to send all of their children to school. While focusing on women farmers likely ensures greater economic and agricultural productivity, it also ensures greater promise for the next generation.

arm shown stirring a pot, cooking over an open fire

After spending half of my career in international agricultural development, I witnessed releases of increasing amounts of research but also expanding market gaps. I had an education in economics but had also spent the earlier part of my career in traditional business roles, so I saw the potential for high ROI social impact. I knew that if we focused on women, we would see generational impact, as well as national impact.

In the last decade, I had seen an increase in the number of agricultural technologies in the market, specifically technologies targeted to small-scale farmers and their unique needs. Yet, I knew that the actual buyers of these technologies were relatively privileged and not necessarily living on a meagre subsistence level. Unfortunately, the vast majority of rural subsistence farmers have been forgotten by modern day capitalism and would continue to be left behind unless something changed.

Zambian women farmers doing a happy dance next to a sign that says "every donation to the harvest fund makes a farmer do a happy dance"

I also observed that the average rural woman farmer and their government liaison (known as an extension officer) oftentimes had no idea of the modern innovations that existed. I like to use this example: imagine if the modern-day breast pump was only available to the high net-worth individuals in the community and nobody else knew about it yet they were the ones who needed it. Not only did the wealthy women have breast pumps, they also had nannies and running water for their children! On the other hand, the poor women had no nannies, running water, or the ability to breastfeed. Imagine the type of cyclical, generational inequality that would ensue!

Yet, similar inequalities plague hundreds of millions of women in 2020. For the Zambian women farmers at The Harvest Fund, we’ve observed that their rural location placed them at an immediate disadvantage because of the lack of cellular connectivity, electricity, or running water. Why does this matter? Let’s take you to their vegetable garden! If you’re a hobby gardener, you understand how much water vegetables require. Now, in order for our rural women to access water next to the garden, they had manually dug a 4-meter-deep hole. That well would dry up so they’d occasionally dig deeper which is quite risky because the well could easily collapse. In order to pull the water from the hole, they use simple jerrycans or buckets. Then, they drag the buckets of water to their vegetable garden. They sell these vegetables at the roadside, earning just $1 per day.

Now, imagine how much more they would earn if they replaced these manual processes with a solar water pump and spray hose?

Unfortunately, these women think a spray hose is for the “rich man.” A simple garden hose!

close-up of a garden hose

On their own, they couldn’t afford a solar pump for lifting water (the other options are hand or diesel pumps, both of which are time-inefficient or environmentally unfriendly) but, as a group, they could purchase the pump on credit and make monthly repayments. Culturally, African women, especially in Zambia, tend to work in groups – supporting each other through savings groups or childcare – which corroborates the concept of group purchases.

Women farmers tend to formally register themselves as a cooperative or club. At The Harvest Fund, we screen and competitively select the cooperatives/clubs that show strong intra-organizational management and teamwork. These groups then enter our programme as “cohorts” and undergo a 5-step process to become more agriculturally productive and eventually escape extreme. In the initial year, they are trained on modern climate-smart techniques because, in southern Africa, farmers have been hit from extreme drought. Then, they are subsequently linked to more complex agricultural technologies. Each of the technologies in our programme have been chosen for their ability to reduce hunger and drastically increase incomes.

While we subsidize a portion of the technologies, we believe in cultivating a culture of independence. To this end, each of the cohorts repays a portion of the technology. Unfortunately, financing hasn’t reached this part of Africa – even for the well-off households – so monthly repayment options are unheard of.

Even after the first season, we’ve seen our farmers’ harvests double. Because of the innovative storage bags that we’ve introduced them to, they’re able to store their harvests for longer and sell when prices are higher. We estimate that their incomes will increase 10X from last year’s income. With the solar pump, we estimate that they’ll experience an additional 3X increase income.

man shown farming behind crops

What does this mean for a rural Zambian woman? She can become the breadwinner for her family. She’ll be the talk of her village. She’ll be able to send ALL of her children to school, even the girls. She won’t have to worry about which child to feed.

Our work focuses on systems change. Our model isn’t about a single village or woman – it’s about changing the ecosystem in which they live. If you want to join us in this journey of change, follow us on Facebook or Instagram, give the gift of agricultural training or technology, or host a Facebook fundraiser in honor of your birthday. Our model directs 100% of donations directly to the farmers.

*All photos were taken by Michelle Kurian


About the author

A decade into her corporate career, Michelle left a comfortable job in Washington, DC on a sabbatical to join TechnoServe as a fellow. Since then, she has been intrigued by rural agriculture in Central America, South Asia, and Africa, and how it can be used as a tool for improving economic productivity. When she’s not at her laptop, she can be found adventuring outside, listening to audiobooks, or studying a new language. 

Follow Michelle’s exciting progress with The Harvest Fund in Zambia at:

https://www.theharvestfund.org/

https://www.facebook.com/theharvestfund

https://www.instagram.com/theharvestfund/

https://www.linkedin.com/company/the-harvest-fund

https://www.twitter.com/michellekurian