Empowering women in Zanzibar through Farmer Field Schools

By Kalin Schultz

Women and men taking part in a wealth ranking excercise at a farmer field school in Mbuzini on Pemba island in Zanzibar, Tanzania.
Issues of gender equality and agricultural development are deeply intertwined. Powerful voices, including that of IFAD President Gilbert Houngbo, have made clear that if we do not empower women, we will not eradicate hunger or poverty by 2030.

The October Gender Breakfast gave participants at HQ a window on successful experiences in Tanzania, where IFAD has been funding two programmes – the Agriculture Sector Development Programme-Livestock (ASDP-L) and the Agriculture Service Support Programme (ASSP) – to improve agricultural technology and production practices along with gender sensitization among smallholder farmers.

For the first time ever, participants at a Gender Breakfast were connected directly with people from the field. This presented a unique opportunity to engage in an open dialogue with those who are both implementing and taking part in IFAD-funded initiatives.

Project Gender Focal Point, Asha Omar Fakih, coordinated the discussion in Zanzibar through the Tanzania Country Office. Mwajina Hassan, a woman participant in the programmes, shared her experiences. Both programmes have worked through Farmer Field Schools (FFS), where smallholders learn techniques and skills to improve their production and yields.

At first, only men attended the project meetings in Zanzibar. Fakih recounted that she had to emphasize that the project was intended to sensitize the entire community on issues of gender inequality, so it required at least 40 per cent of the group participants to be women.

She told the men “we need the women as well”.

Due to cultural norms in Tanzania, women do not normally hold leadership positions, mix with men or make an independent income. The programmes aimed to challenge these assumptions through gathering men and women together to learn within the context of knowledge-sharing and development.

Fakih and Hassan presented some of the challenges and the successes of the programmes. They spoke of the initial discomfort that the participants felt in the mixed-group setting. The women did not feel they could express their thoughts or ask questions. However, Fakih recounted that the women began to change over time. Each meeting, there would be more progress and engagement.

Slowly, the women in the group started asking questions more confidently and taking the lead on different projects. The women would also often share their new knowledge throughout the community, improving their own production practices alongside their neighbours’. Hassan had even taken on a leadership role as a Farmer Facilitator as a result of her personal progress and empowerment.

Investment in women’s education and economic participation gives significant social and economic returns. As the women in Zanzibar learned new skills, they were producing more crops. Wives began bringing home higher yields than their husbands. And as their production and income increased, they became economically empowered, resulting in improvements in individual, family and communal wellbeing.

As Fakih and Hassan from Zanzibar spoke to the Gender Breakfast participants, the multiple implications of empowering women through these projects became clear. They emphasized that many women have begun playing an active role in the local economy and in local government. Women are increasingly sending their children to school because they have the money to pay tuition fees.

As women become more economically empowered, their self-esteem and motivation increases. They begin to speak out and voice their concerns to their local representatives. They seek to educate themselves and their families further. In a place where women were not traditionally viewed as capable of earning an income or filling a leadership role, they begin to recognize their own potential.

The October Gender Breakfast made it possible for IFAD staff in Rome to hear directly from the people on the ground in Tanzania. The stories told by Fakih and Hassan about the impacts of the two programmes were powerful and truly exemplified the transformative nature of initiatives that focus on gender equality.