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Nothing Can Stop the African Woman… Ask Agathe

March 8, 2010

  • A cocoa farmers cooperative is empowering women in Cote d’Ivoire’s Sud Bandama region
  • The cooperative is part of a campaign led by one woman to bring economic prosperity to her peers
  • Through its initiatives, The World Bank is supporting gender action and economic development for women around the world

ABIDJAN, March 8, 2010 --A baby girl loses her mother at birth. A few years later, she is “sold” into domestic labor by her own father. The richer family for which she works “pays” her regularly… with a whip. She is denied an education and can neither read nor write.

If, in addition, she also suffers abuse in a violent marriage and loses everything in the ensuing divorce, her spirit would certainly be destroyed. Right?

Wrong! Meet Agathe Dowa Toti épouse Vanié.

A life of missed opportunities and untold hardships has prepared Agathe for the leadership she now provides to over 600 women, members of a farmers’ cooperative she has founded– the Association of female coffee-cocoa producers of Sud-Bandama (AFPCC).

The cocoa in your next chocolate bar may come from a plantation owned by AFPCC members in this central region of Cote d’Ivoire, the world’s leading producer of the cocoa bean.

Agathe wants her brand to be known as “cacao femme” (women cocoa). It will be of the finest quality, Agathe promises, and will be exclusively grown, harvested, treated, dried and sold by women, women who run the plantations for which they hold land titles.

Women have grown cocoa here for decades, but on farms owned by their husbands or male partners. Agathe wants to put an end to traditions that make access to land a “men’s affair”. Coffee-cocoa farms owned by women, not only extend their involvement in agriculture beyond growing foodstuffs but ensure that women become business partners, not the “slaves” or “property” of their spouses and in-laws.

Sixty-percent of the World’s Poor – Breaking the Cycle

Agathe’s campaign – a “small revolution” – is gaining ground and winning support. Given ancestral practices, it is no small feat that one of the paramount chiefs of Sud-Bandama has openly taken sides in support of the campaign. Last September, Nestle International provided 20,000 high-yield; disease-resistant cocoa seedlings to help AFPCC start a nursery. Another mark of recognition for her work is the fact that Agathe was one of a few local women invited to meet with World Bank President Robert B. Zoellick during his visit to Cote d’Ivoire at the end of January 2010.

The International Day of Women (March 8) is an appropriate moment to pay homage to “the millions of Agathes” whose outstanding work tackles the many injustices that remain against women in Africa. These women share a mission with the World Bank. Fostering development strategies that take into account the plight of girls and women and promoting gender equality and women’s empowerment are central to the Bank’s mission of helping Africa countries achieve the Millennium Development Goals and poverty reduction.

Fifteen years after the Beijing Conference and despite remarkable progress, women still constitute 60 percent of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people. They still earn 22 percent less in salaries than their male counterparts. Two-thirds of women in the developing world work in the informal sector or as unpaid workers in the home. According to the United Nations, two-thirds of all children not attending school are girls. Some 75 percent of the world’s women cannot get bank loans because they have unpaid or insecure jobs and are not entitled to property ownership. While women comprise more than 50 percent of the world’s population, they own only one percent of the world’s wealth and, in Africa, get only one percent of total credit going to agriculture. Women are still outnumbered four-to-one in legislatures worldwide and an additional 700,000 African infants (the majority of them girls) are likely to die before their first birthday as a result of the ongoing global economic crisis.

Not just a Gender Action Plan

The World Bank, which has female economic empowerment components in 83 projects it is funding worth a total $4.4 billion, adopted a four-year Gender Action Plan (GAP) in 2007. Gender Equality as Smart Economics, as the plan is known, could have been written by women like Agathe. In addition to maintaining gender as a cross-cutting theme in the Bank Group’s Agriculture Action Plan, GAP seeks to increase women’s access to land, agricultural inputs, infrastructure, labor force and financial services.

“Expanding economic opportunities for African women in ways that lead to greater labor participation and earnings is one of the best ways of achieving faster growth, health and poverty reduction outcomes, benefiting not only women, but also men, children and communities as a whole,” said Ms. Obiageli Ezekwesili, Vice President for the Africa Region at the World Bank, adding that women’s earnings not only raise household incomes overall, but enhance women’s control over decision-making, translating into improved well-being for their children and future generations.

Recognizing the potential benefits, Bank President Zoellick pledged in 2008 to increase International Development Association (IDA) investments for gender equality in operations to be financed under the three-year IDA-16 program beginning 2011. He also promised that at least 50 percent of Bank-funded rural projects and of land policy and administration projects will include gender-responsive actions and use gender analysis to guide project design and support regulatory reforms by end 2010. And, research is currently underway for the 2012 World Development Report, which the World Bank has devoted to Gender.

The Africa Region also runs an $11 million, three-year Adolescent Girls Initiative, providing skills training to match market demand and helping young girls transition from education to work or entrepreneurship in three African countries: Liberia, Rwanda and Southern Sudan. Liberia, for instance, is working with the Bank to break out of low-quality training focused on traditionally “female skills” such as soap-making, pastry-making, or sewing, for which there is a high labor supply and little market demand.

Under the $50 million Gender Entrepreneurship Markets (GEM), the International Finance Corporation (IFC) is addressing gender barriers to the business environment and promoting women’s access to finance benefiting over 1,500 women in 18 sub-Saharan African countries by end-2009. The GEM is expected to reach thousands more in five African countries following the signing of a $120 million loan program between the IFC and the pan-African bank, EcoBank. The amount is $20 million more than President Zoellick pledged in 2008, when he said the IFC will channel at least $100 million in credit lines at commercial banks for women entrepreneurs by the end of 2012. In addition, the IFC’s “Doing Business: Women in Africa” is working to identify legal and regulatory barriers facing businesswomen in 181 countries and to suggest possible reforms.

A Bank-funded study released last February (Gender in Rural Service Provision) confirms that progress, while steady, remains slow. While women in Ethiopia, Ghana and India grow about 80 percent of the food their families consume, they are in the identical situation of women in the Sud-Bandama region of Cote d’Ivoire. They still have less access to knowledge, technology, credit, and land than men.

The global economic crisis could make a bad situation worse. Following an initial assessment of the impact of the global economic crisis, Vice President Ezekwesili warned that the crisis would hit African women hard, halting their capital accumulation and drastically reducing women’s individual incomes as well as the budgets they manage on behalf of households.

Unlike in the United States, where the crisis has seen bigger losses of male-held jobs, many export-oriented sectors in Africa dominated by female workers–-for example, the cut-flower industries (Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, and Uganda), the textile industry in Lesotho and Kenya, and the hospitality sector–-are among those bleeding the most jobs.

Economic Empowerment and Education

Back in Cote d’Ivoire, thanks to US$6,250 in funding from Nestle last October, Agathe’s cooperative is able to provide temporary jobs to more than 300 of its members working to set up a nursery and earning a daily wage of about US$3. While low, these wages are considered a blessing by women in Kperedi, the village where the nursery is situated, and where the only other paid employment is that of six teachers at the government primary school.

Twenty five of the 211 pupils (81 girls) at the school are orphans sponsored by Agathe, who is the adoptive mother for close to 200 Sud Bandama children left orphaned by Cote d’Ivoire’s three-year civil war. . Agathe is also at the head of another campaign: to sensitize families to scale up girls’ enrollment in the school, which only has 20 girls in the three senior classes. Launched just over two years ago, the campaign has achieved some remarkable results already. A year after it started, the number of girls who enrolled in the first year of the school (Primary One) out-number boys… a first in the history of the village.

The other first: the nursery of 20,000 seedlings—enough to start 20 hectares of cocoa plantation—will spark a revolution when they are distributed by end-March 2010 to members of the cooperative. Eighteen months after planting, this high-yield, high-quality, disease-resistant variety of cocoa is expected to yield about 2.5 tons of cocoa per hectare. The impact on women’s lives in this region could be tremendous, even if prices stay as low as they were in February 2010: US$3 per kilogram.

Often lost to men but unlikely to be overlooked by women, Agathe worries for the food security of Sud-Bandama region. The men in the region, she tells me, are increasingly devoting farmlands to the cultivation of a more lucrative product: rubber, turning their back on coffee-cocoa.

“While we can grow cassava, plantain, coco-yams, potatoes, yams and lots of vegetables in between cocoa trees, foodstuffs cannot be grown alongside rubber trees,” Agathe explains, acknowledging the impact this will have on family diets, singularly on children.

The road to sustainable development can only be built on a gender inclusive agenda, using innovative ways to reduce discrimination against women in access to land, jobs, education, financial services, entrepreneurship training, and to higher rungs of corporate ladders.

While education is an important first step, development strategies will only deliver the promise of women’s empowerment if they strengthen women’s organizations, do more to enhance women’s leadership, to help guarantee equal legal protection to poor women and men and to deepen women’s participation in policy making initiatives. A Bank-funded program is helping to sharpen the leadership and decision-making capacities of women elected in April 2009 into local government in Mali’s Kita region, about 180 km from the capital Bamako. Small scale projects, implemented as part of the Bank-funded Social Development Civil Society Fund in Nigeria, strengthen the self-reliance and income-generating activities of women and youth in five states of the country.

The “millions of Agathes” working in this area know that progress is possible and attainable in shorter time periods. The achievements in education are a source of comfort for activists and development partners. Primary school enrollment for girls in IDA countries went up from 85 percent in 1991 to 102 percent in 2006, as the gap in education between women and men narrowed. That is the kind of fast progress Agathe and her friends are banking on.