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Women in Non-Production Roles in Agriculture: A Literature Review of Promising Practices


The USAID Feed the Future Initiative supports the development of agriculture as an engine of economic growth, food security, and poverty reduction. Key to the success of this initiative is the empowerment of women, who play a vital role in advancing agricultural development, food security, and nutritional outcomes. Much of Feed the Future’s agricultural programmatic support to rural women thus far has been concentrated at the production stage.

As a result, there is a wealth of information related to women’s economic empowerment through production, but there is limited available data related to best practices and promising approaches for women’s empowerment at other value chain levels.

This literature review aims to fill this knowledge gap by examining approaches to empower women or increase their incomes in four phases of the value chain outside of production: input and service provision, post-harvest handling, processing, and the marketing of agricultural goods.  While some of the women who are beneficiaries of the strategies discussed in this review are not engaged in agricultural production, many are farmers who also work at other levels of the value chain. Often, these activities build on or add value to production interventions.

The review focuses on three specific value chains: maize, groundnut, and horticulture (defined as fruit and vegetable production). Projects span the continents of Africa, Asia, and Latin America. This review of literature reveals that there are many opportunities to increase women’s economic empowerment beyond interventions focused on production. Overall, projects at all four value chain levels tended to direct women’s empowerment efforts and activities through producer groups or cooperatives. It was most common for target groups to be comprised primarily or entirely of women. The groups supported by project activities ranged from small, informal organizations to large cooperatives. Notable outliers include projects that worked with agrodealers and market women, who tend to be small business owners. Unfortunately, these outlier projects do not have good data regarding incomes or empowerment so it is difficult to compare the two approaches. However, it is safe to say that interventions have successfully generated social and economic gains for women by working through producer groups of varying sizes. Post-production interventions addressed a range of gender-based constraints. A common issue addressed through project activities is women’s insufficient training, knowledge, or skills, which lead to low returns or exclusion from post-production entrepreneurship. Almost all projects included a training component, such as technical skills for seed production, post-harvest handling, and processing. Trainings may also have covered business topics, such as organizational management or marketing. One effective approach adopted by many projects was to offer a package of trainings that covered both technical and business knowledge. Capacity-building efforts have had notable impacts on women’s skills, knowledge, and ability to effectively run their businesses. Around a quarter of projects included a training component to address gender-specific issues, such as gender roles, leadership, or power. While it is difficult to say conclusively that these gender trainings improved economic or empowerment indicators for women, projects that included gender sensitization trainings did report positive changes in attitudes of both men and women on gender equity and perceptions of gender. Many of the projects that did not include gender trainings have still been successful in enhancing women’s economic empowerment; however, they may have had a more profound impact if they had also addressed these deeper, and interrelated, social issues. Another constraint addressed through project activities was women’s generally low levels of assets and equipment. In some cases, project activities were selected based on their ability to work within the asset and equipment constraints. For example, one project identified seed production as an activity that did not require large amounts of land—a resource women lacked. Many projects also included technology or equipment provision in their approach, which served to close some of the gender gaps in access to resources and enabled women to be more effective in post-harvest handling, processing, or marketing activities. Additionally, technology provision addressed the issue of women’s drudgery, especially in relation to post-harvest handling and processing. A review of the current data demonstrates that the impacts of these technologies on women’s empowerment can be impressive. For example, because women are responsible for maize management, the provision of silo technology for maize storage contributed to women’s economic empowerment by reducing their drudgery, enhancing their marketing options, and increasing their status. Scales for weighing maize enabled women to negotiate with buyers. Literature Review July 2016 2 Women’s limited market access due to a lack of linkages or mobility is another common issue addressed. Many projects noted that women face particular constraints marketing their products due to factors such as isolation, lack of knowledge, quality issues, and lack of bargaining power. In addition to capacity building in business or marketing topics, the most common marketing approaches were developing models for collective marketing and linking market actors to one another either informally or through contracts. In combination with support for the production and storage of high-quality products, the development of marketing institutions or linkages have led to both economic and social benefits for female farmers. Projects demonstrated positive social and economic results for women. Analyses pointed to increases in sales and/or prices as a result of interventions as well as improvements in income. With regard to empowerment, common results include expected outcomes of project activities such as increased knowledge and skills, market access, participation in organizations, and assets. However, projects have also generated impacts such as increased confidence, shifts in decision-making power or voice at household and community levels, increased community connections or social support, increased leadership, a decrease in workloads, and an increase in bargaining power. A small number of interventions also generated shifts in both men’s and women’s perceptions of women’s status, roles, and responsibilities. This literature review points to quite a few good practices that generate positive socioeconomic impacts for women. These include the creation or strengthening of women’s groups; strategies to increase women’s participation in mixed groups; technical trainings for women; the provision of post-harvest or processing technology for women; collective marketing; and the inclusion of specific gender trainings in post-production interventions. In general, interventions provided packages of support and did not rely on a single approach. Therefore, in many cases, it is difficult to associate impact-level indicators with a single activity. The literature review did not yield any examples of practices that consistently did not work. However, it is interesting to note that the interventions included in the literature review generally used approaches that were similar to one another. An enlightening area for further research would be whether these similarities are due to current trends in development practice or due to failures of other types of interventions. All of the projects included in this analysis have had some degree of success; however, some have had more modest results than hoped for. Of the projects that did report challenges or lessons learned, one common sticking point was issues related to planning and implementation, including gender mainstreaming issues such as a lack of staff gender capacity or coherent gender approaches in design. Projects also discussed implementation issues related to the environments in which they were operating, including gender norms that made it difficult to implement interventions or led to unintended consequences such as men taking over crops that had been seen as “female.” Other challenges included limited profitability of enterprises as well as issues establishing linkages to finance or markets. Finally, interventions ran into difficulties related to gaps in institutional or human capacity, such as quality control issues or inadequate training in marketing. While these issues are not necessarily all gender specific, they are common problems faced by interventions aiming to increase women’s economic empowerment. The most significant issue that impedes analysis of post-production interventions is a lack of rigorous impact data related to women’s empowerment and economic opportunities. Without this data, it is difficult to compare projects to one another or draw broad conclusions related to what works and what does not. Another challenge is that many project documents focus on describing successes while minimizing attention to failures or trouble spots. While there certainly is value in publishing and documenting success stories, a more evenly focused body of literature would make it easier to avoid repeating mistakes. Currently, we have a decent understanding of what is working but very spotty knowledge related to what has not worked and why. Moving forward, there are four important areas for improving data collection related to women’s post-production economic empowerment. The first is the development of a more robust body of published gender assessments and impact assessments. Reliable and transparent access to a greater body of data will enable practitioners to compare approaches to one another in a far more rigorous way. The second area is for increased collection of data on interventions and approaches to empower women engaged in service provision or marketing who are not farmers. While we know quite a bit about projects that have worked with female seed producers, producers, and processors, there is a significant gap related to projects that have worked with women at other value chain levels. It is unclear if this is because such projects do not exist or if there is successful work happening that has not been documented. On a related note, there are quite a few examples of interventions to empower women processors who are not necessarily farmers; however, the quality of the data is poorer than that of other value chain stages. Thirdly, another potential area for exploration could be promising practices for increasing women’s participation in male-dominated organizations or sectors. While this literature review found a few projects that focused on this, the most Literature Review July 2016 3 common approach was to increase women’s economic empowerment through female-dominated groups or activities or through mixed groups with strong female representation. A more robust body of literature related to increasing female participation in male-dominated areas would be useful both for mainstreaming gender in such projects and for comparing whether it is more effective to target women’s groups or to empower women through male-dominated sectors or associations. Finally, another information gap is data on women’s control over their post-production earnings. While we know that projects have succeeded in increasing women’s involvement in entrepreneurial activities, projects have not quantitatively documented how income is controlled within these women’s households. Although there is some anecdotal evidence that women are able to retain control over their post-production earnings, more robust data would enable practitioners to better understand these dynamics. 

This paper aims to fill this knowledge gap by examining approaches to empower women or increase their incomes in four phases of the value chain outside of production: input and service provision, post-harvest handling, processing, and the marketing of agricultural goods.

This literature review focuses on projects in three crop value chains: maize, groundnut, and horticulture. 

Projects were identified through keyword searches using a variety of combinations related to the commodities, value chain stages, and/or particular occupations or products within the value chains. Other keywords used include, among others, women, gender, empowerment, project, and program. Projects were also identified through bibliographies or because they were mentioned in webpages or documents found through the keyword searches. Due to the small quantity of rigorous materials on the topic, the researchers accepted materials beyond assessments or formal reports, including blog posts or success stories.

They used the primary criteria that the intervention work with women on a post-production activity that was tied to income generation and that it document at least one example of a successful or promising approach. Projects that were selected were those that worked with women in farmer organizations or in micro, small, or medium enterprises.

The literature review did not include efforts to improve working conditions for female employees in large companies or for female agricultural laborers. Not all projects included were successful in each of their aims. Projects that ended before 2005 were excluded from the literature review. Although the word empowerment is frequently utilized in development projects, its precise definition varies across projects, organizations, and research studies.

This literature review focuses on projects that increased women’s access to knowledge and skills, physical assets, credit, participation in organizations, and linkages with value chain actors for both inputs and marketing, among other interventions. When discussing empowerment impacts, the review analyzes how such approaches have led to positive changes in women’s agency or their capacity to bring about economic change for themselves. For example, increased women’s business skills through training was not analyzed as an empowerment impact for programs that used business skills training as an approach. The acquisition or increase of skills is not in and of itself viewed by the researchers as empowerment; rather, it is the application or use of those business skills that demonstrates empowerment. Therefore, if the project documents that such skills training for women led to increased negotiating power, expansion of enterprise, or higher levels of confidence, this is treated as an economic empowerment impact.

The review looks for patterns, similarities, and differences across the three value chains at the four levels of post-production activities. In many interventions, there are overlaps between the different value chain levels. For example, an activity may combine post-harvest handling with processing or processing with marketing, etc. Similarly, there is not always a clean division of production and post-production activities. Improving marketing, for example, may involve trainings related to how to conduct market analyses to determine what to plant. For the sake of clarity, interventions have been grouped according to what is the most dominant activity. In cases where there are two distinctly separate activities, projects are mentioned twice in the review.

Additionally, some projects worked with additional crops beyond the three the review focuses on. When results and activity data include several crops, this is noted in the figures at the beginning of each section. Practitioners reading this document should be aware that this is an effort to disseminate the best information that exists to date rather than an analysis of rigorous studies. Due to a dearth of projects with external gender assessments or evaluations, some projects are included that do not have rigorous or detailed descriptions of their results. Similarly, some evaluations focus on the results but give very perfunctory descriptions of the activities implemented. Although the majority of projects have at least some level of results data, a few particularly innovative projects have been included even though they are in their initial stages.

As this literature review has demonstrated, there is a great deal of potential to increase women’s economic empowerment in the value chain stages of production services and input provision, post-harvest handling, processing, and marketing.

In the three value chains reviewed, horticulture is the value chain with the most examples of projects that have worked with women. This is not surprising, considering that this value chain includes a greater variety of crops than the others and also has historically been a focus of interventions targeting women. There was no discernable difference between the attention given to women in marketing, processing, and post-harvest handling activities.

With the exception of seed production, examples of efforts to increase women’s economic empowerment at the input stage are relatively sparse. One important gap to point out is that although these projects operated at value chain stages outside of production, many were still focused on producers. There is a lack of literature related to interventions that work with female traders, vendors, and other value chain actors that are not farmers.

The exception to this trend is projects that work with small-scale processors, who may not also be producers. This gap is of particular importance because small-scale middle actors could in fact be negatively impacted by interventions focused on moving producers up the value chain. An important area for further research could be whether there are opportunities to incorporate these women into formal value chains rather than bypassing them in efforts to find higher-value markets for female producers.

Interesting areas for investigation would be to see if the common strategies mentioned in this study such as group formation, capacity building, and linkages could be adapted in projects targeting traders or vendors. In general, most of the interventions reviewed work with groups of farmers or entrepreneurs. There is a wide range of organizations in terms of size, sex composition, and degree of formality.

There are examples of successful initiatives in male- 60 Institute for Integrated Development Studies (IIDS), Evaluation: The Hill Maize Research Project. Literature Review July 2016 25 dominated organizations, in groups with relatively even membership, in groups with a female majority, and in all-female enterprises. However, the most common approach was to empower women in groups, enterprises, or sectors that were female dominated. The most common activities for increasing women’s economic empowerment were trainings on topics related to technical skills for specific activities as well as business, management, or marketing. Relatively few projects included specific gender or empowerment trainings, but these did seem to strengthen efforts to increase women’s economic empowerment or change perceptions.

This literature review also highlights the power of technology to increase women’s bargaining power, improve product quality, and/or decrease women’s workloads. One striking example is the provision of scales for weighing maize, which enabled women to receive an accurate price for their produce and avoid exploitation by traders. Additionally, technical support for strengthening linkages to markets, inputs, or credit can have a profound impact on women’s incomes and bargaining power. In all of the examples of marketing projects that worked with farmers, marketing support took the form of collective marketing. While some collective marketing models and linkages were intricate and involved many components, there are examples of simpler collective marketing efforts that focused on relationship building among value chain actors. While there are a wide range of promising models and approaches to increasing women’s economic empowerment surrounding post-production activities, rigorous impact data related to this topic is relatively sparse.

This review has included the best information available, rather than restricting the interventions reviewed to those with rigorous impact data or evaluations. Nonetheless, there are examples of models with demonstrable results that have increased women’s economic and social empowerment throughout the value chain. 


Photo credit: FAO

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