Ukama Ustawi: Accelerating inclusive agribusiness in East and Southern Africa

Empowerment and structural change come hand in hand – and with women agri-entrepreneurs at the center!

Karen Nortje, Senior Researcher, IWMI South Africa Lead WP5, Ukama Ustawi Initiative)
Kristin Davis, Senior Research Fellow, IFPRI SA, WP5 Ukama Ustawi
Hauke Dahl, Scaling Lead – East and Southern Africa, Co-Lead, WP3 Ukama Ustawi
Deepa Joshi, Gender and Social Inclusion Lead, IWMI; Co-Lead WP5, Ukama Ustawi
Mercy Zulu-Hume, Sustainable Finance Specialist, Alliance Bioversity – CIAT
Phindiwe Nkosi, Communications and Knowledge Management Expert, IWMI-South Africa

A woman hawking yam. Photo: Hamish John Appleby / IWMI
A woman hawking yam. Photo: Hamish John Appleby / IWMI

Florence Okot is one of ten agribusiness entrepreneurs from East and Southern Africa selected by the Food Systems Accelerator Initiative of Ukama Ustawi to accelerate climate-smart innovations addressing key problems in food value chains.  Florence has not had an easy childhood, having survived conflict and immense human insecurity. Her commitment to do agribusiness, as the Managing Director of a produce and food processing company named Yellow Star, is driven by her wish to speak out, especially as a woman working in a complex development environment. 

This Initiative will train three successive cohorts of agri-entrepreneurs like Florence. Over 40% of the three cohorts (30 entrepreneurs) will be women, and 40% youth. Our decision to ensure that women are a significant part of this program is built on evidence generated in 2022 by Ukama Ustawi, that attention to gender equality and social inclusion is fundamental to transformative agribusiness in the region.

Over 45 billion US$ currently invested in agriculture in East and Southern Africa is at risk from increasing climate variability, with higher temperatures, shorter growing seasons, and extreme droughts and floods affecting the most marginalized smallholders, 60 percent of whom are women.  Often the least able to adapt to and mitigate climate challenges and risks, women like Florence make up a third of all small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in Africa – the largest number anywhere in the world. Yet gender gaps in both entrepreneurial growth opportunities and agriculture value chains actually makes agriculture a key driver of persistent gender inequality in Africa. The African continent is also on the cusp of a youth bulge. Around 100 million young people entering the workforce in Africa over the next 10 years will need to find work in agriculture. However, many of the same constraining factors faced by women –  poor access to land, natural resources, infrastructure, finance, technology and knowledge – as well as low returns from much agricultural activity drive youth away from investing time and energy in food systems. But at the same time, youth engagement is critical from both a demographic and socio-economic perspective. Without their involvement,  the future of agri-food systems in Africa looks very ropey indeed.

Building a Gender Equality and Social Inclusion design in Agribusiness:  Ukama Ustawi’s Climate-smart Agriculture (CSA) program – known as the Food Systems Accelerator Program – aims to  provide state-of-the-art “know-how” in designing, financing, and implementing climate resilient agribusiness innovations for startups, including expertise in exploring new partnerships within local and national economies. In total, three cohorts of 30 agri-entrepreneurs in East and Southern Africa will be supported over the duration of the Ukama Ustawi Initiative (2022-2024).

Informed by a demand-driven and market-responsive approach, the Accelerator program has evaluated over 1,100 applications following a rigorous selection process, identifying the first cohort of ten agri-entrepreneurs. Six of these ten agribusiness enterprises are either led or co-led by women. The entire group of ten companies are engaged in high-growth, high-impact agribusinesses from four focus countries: Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Zambia. The program provides tailor-made technical assistance, financing know-how, and others skills support to advance climate-smart sustainable and inclusive growth, investment-readiness, as well as ways to measure impact and growth.ransforming the Agribusiness Landscape: Building agribusiness capacity of women and youth is one goal. The other is to complement this affirmative initiative by ensuring that business and innovation models are designed to deliberately tackle ‘structural and systemic factors that constrain inclusiveness in agribusiness’. The question we asked to the applicants in our selection process was – “how do/will you intentionally target and benefit women in the businesses you lead and want to develop”?

The companies we have selected have pledged to do precisely this. For instance, a Zambian agricultural input retailer is developing an alternative credit and lending tool for its existing customer base, focusing on female farmers by providing them semi-formalized autonomy over their economic and financial systems. Another company, a Ugandan bean processing firm, produces packaged pre-cooked beans, reducing CO2 emissions through reduction of charcoal use, which can drastically reduce women’s time spent preparing food.

The first cohort of agribusinesses show the potential of the agribusiness ecosystem to introduce impactful solutions for women to decrease workloads, increase ownership of farms, enable women’s engagement in value chains, and affirmatively facilitate access to credit and capital etc. As part of the program, Ukama Ustawi also supports these businesses to reach scale, alongside increasing their likelihood of accessing different kinds of financing mechanisms that are so elemental for future growth.

Building in a gender transformative agenda and ensuring gender-responsive scaling requires rethinking policies, influencing financing mechanisms and investors, and building the capacity of women and youth to demand new opportunities. This is what we have learnt through our own assessments in 2022 in discussion with over 100 women and 25 youth agri-entrepreneurs in Kenya, Ethiopia, Zambia and Zimbabwe, as well as extensive discussions with public, private, civil society stakeholders in the region, on this topic convened by our partner, Solidaridad.

In order to build a more rigorous design for inclusivity in agribusiness, Ukama Ustawi is also partnering with The Rallying Cry, a not-for-profit organization that serves to link international financing instruments and opportunities in the region with various development sectors, including agriculture.

According to a recent report by The Rallying Cry, the journey to truly transforming the agribusiness landscape will need to start with reimagining a more inclusive financial system.  Their research shows that women’s unequal access to finance is often due to inaccessible investor reporting requirements, inflexible financial mechanisms and processes, and rigid mindsets, amongst other socio-cultural challenges.  Leveling the playing field will require action at multiple levels, and with multiple actors and stakeholders,  to ensure that the financial priorities and needs of women are aligned and not misaligned to those of investors as well as new financial instruments. This calls for institutional capacity strengthening of many more actors besides [poor] women and youth. In 2023, Ukama Ustawi will work more closely with women in agribusiness: connecting women business leaders and investors with diverse groups of strategic public and private actors in the East and Southern Africa agribusiness world.

Empowerment and structural change come hand in hand – and with women agri-entrepreneurs at the centre!

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