Article: Gender equality training for more successful smallholder production

7 June 2021

Sandi Roberts | Head of AgDevCo’s Smallholder Development Unit (SDU) from 2015 to March 2021

As anyone working with smallholder farmers knows, two of the biggest challenges are getting farmers to commit to Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) and securing sources of sustainable micro-finance. That is before you’ve started thinking about some of the harmful cultural practices that is a feature of rural communities – gender-based violence and child labour being top of the list. 

I believe there is an intervention that addresses all of these challenges, and when I saw it in action a few months ago, it was one of the biggest ‘wow’ moments of my career. 

AgDevCo’s SDU has been supporting one of its partners in Tanzania, Taylor Winch Tanzania (TWT), in delivering the Gender Action Learning System (GALS) programme among members of the Mlimani-ngarashi coffee-producing co-operative, just outside of Arusha. TWT buys high-quality Arabica coffee from co-operatives across Tanzania, whom they support with year-round technical and leadership training to help increase the quality of the coffee. TWT’s support to the Mlimani-ngarashi co-operative (and various others) also includes a ‘social development’ element by providing training to farmers in household budgeting and gender awareness. 

GALS is a system that teaches men and women, together, to identify the steps necessary in achieving their personal, family and farm goals. It has been developed over the last two decades in Africa, Asia and South America, and its success at dismantling gender stereotypes and promoting equality between husbands and wives is well-documented. TWT has already seen a reduction in domestic violence within the communities where it is delivering GALS training, and women are reporting greater empathy from their husbands.

But what also excites me is that GALS improves uptake of GAPs by demonstrating how these practices lead to a desirable end goal, such as affording a better roof or paying for children’s school fees.

How does GALS work?

The GALS process starts with the appointment of a ‘gender champion’. In the case of Mlimani-Ngarashi, her name is Mary, and she is also the co-operative secretary. Mary is an impressive lady who, with support from her husband, is not afraid to take up positions of authority in her local co-operative. Tall in stature, she exudes compassion as well as quiet determination, commanding respect from all sectors of her community. 

However, not all champions are from positions of authority – they are a combination of leaders and everyday members of the community – and not all of them are female. In fact, the split is 50:50 women to men. The key thing is that these individuals are ‘change-makers’. They must be living the change they want to see – namely, a more equal sharing of work and the financial rewards of that work between men and women. 

After training, each champion recruits men and women from 20 households, including single parents, who commit to meeting every week. I had the opportunity to attended one of the meetings, and one thing that stood out to me was the level of engagement and passion of all members, with some saying, “We are part of the change – we can improve ourselves”. The group members sat in a circle, each with a book in which they document their goals. This process is called ‘visioning’ as Grace Murungi, TWT’s Northern Region Sustainability Manager, and an approved GALS facilitator, explained. 

“Visioning is the most important part of the process. It is about setting realistic goals, within the members’ sphere of influence. So instead of crying about the problems we have in Africa, we are focusing on the opportunities that definitely exist. I don’t discourage dreaming big, but I encourage dreaming within reality!”

The process of identifying goals is, in itself, highly beneficial. It brings husbands and wives together and encourages them to communicate in ways that can be rare in patriarchal, socially conservative communities. As one member told me, ‘the training is about understanding how to improve as a family’. Among the personal goals set by a young member of the group was ‘to go on safari’ (i.e., the end goal was to visit a game reserve); More generally, family goals typically focused on educating the children or improving the family home. Farm goals focused largely on coffee trees, which is exciting for TWT to see.

The next stage is to identify the steps required to reach the ‘visioned’ goals and this is where GALS opens the door to improved agricultural practices. Farmers soon realise that their personal goals are intricately linked to achieving their farm goals.  “We link the farm vision to GAPs”, said Grace Murungi. “We map out a calendar, put in all the various agricultural practices that need to take place at different stages, and set realistic targets for each. This translates training into a plan of action.”

The GALS finance model is the most effective micro-finance model I have seen and is critical to the success of the model. To take part in the GALS training, each member must pay a fee of less than USD10, which is put into a community ‘bank’. Thereafter, members make weekly contributions in exchange for shares. Anyone who wants to take out a loan must have a guarantor within the group and a purpose that is linked to their farm goals, such as hiring labour or buying coffee seedlings to replace old trees. Central to the success of this loan mechanism is the fact that members don’t cash out annually, reflecting the longer-term mindset GALS wants to foster. 

Scalable and sustainable?

“We have already identified second-generation champions”, Grace Murungi told me when I asked her how technical assistance providers like the SDU can support commercial agribusinesses like TWT to scale up GALS. “Each group will give rise to two more, whom I will check in on to make sure the GALS tools aren’t being distorted. In time, the first-generation champions will monitor a third generation and so on.”

“The risk is whether individuals like Mary will continue to have enough time to volunteer as GALS champions. As life changes and gets busier, we are seeing an increasing expectation for payment, which is a threat to sustainability. We just hope enough leaders will see the potentially life-changing impact of the system and be prepared to commit their time and energy to sharing it.”

At AgDevCo, we have been inspired by TWT’s early successes with GALS and have provided support to TWT to extend its GALS programme across southern Tanzania. While we also recognise that you cannot cut and paste experiences from one context to the next, the TWT experience with GALS has been inspirational, and this is a programme we would encourage others to consider in their smallholder programmes. I wonder if it resonates with me so strongly because, in Zimbabwe, where I am from, an expression you hear almost daily, in the face of any challenge, is ‘let’s make a plan.’ I put this to Grace, and she agreed. “Smallholder farmers have visions in their heads for the future, but they rarely have a plan for how to get there. They often don’t recognise or understand the opportunities in front of them, and they are so busy with the everyday hustle to survive that they don’t have the headspace to think longer-term.” If we can help smallholder farmers make and execute productive plans for the future, the impact on so many of the big and urgent challenges – food insecurity, poverty, climate change, etc. – could be breathtaking.