Supporting Female Farming Cooperatives: The Smart Choice for the African Development Bank

May 26, 2023

by Henry Adlam


Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) faces significant challenges in agricultural productivity, with cereal yields far below the global average. Despite improvements in other regions, absolute poverty has increased in SSA over the past three decades. The COVID-19 pandemic further highlighted weaknesses in the region's food security system, exacerbated by pre-existing structural issues. This paper emphasizes the importance of empowering women in agriculture, as they constitute a substantial portion of the agricultural labor force in SSA and play a vital role in food production. However, women encounter gender-specific constraints in addition to systemic challenges. Recognizing these issues, the paper proposes that the African Development Bank (AfDB) prioritize female-centric agricultural cooperatives in its strategy, aiming to improve agricultural productivity, empower women, and achieve Sustainable Development Goals. While some multilateral and bilateral initiatives exist, a comprehensive continent-wide program is lacking. The AfDB's agro-industrial strategy, Feed Africa, provides an opportunity to support farming cooperatives, with a specific focus on female empowerment. Despite some existing investments in female farming cooperatives, the AfDB should allocate more resources to help them realize their full potential. The paper highlights the need to bridge the investment gap between large-scale projects and cooperative support, emphasizing the importance of a strategic vision beyond mere productivity improvement and calling for concerted efforts to improve gender equality and enhance agricultural productivity through female-centric cooperatives in Africa.

Defining the Problem, Offering the Solution

Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) is facing a major problem: agricultural productivity has stagnated, with cereal yields three times lower than the global average (Bjørnlund et al. 2020, 56).[i]Absolute poverty has increased in the last thirty years, despite improvements in all other regions of the world (Blein et al. 2013, 72). The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated frailties in the food security system on the continent, but many structural issues predate the pandemic. Prior to the crisis, farmers across SSA have had tenuous-at-best access to critical agricultural inputs such as pesticides, fertilizers, and seeds (Sakho-Jimbira and Hathie 2020). Border closures and travel restrictions limited the movement of laborers and agricultural inputs, leading to a shortage of essential food supplies and an increase in the price of food (Sahko-Jimbira and Hathie 2020) (Ayanlade and Radeny 2020, 13). Because the majority of economies in SSA are heavily dependent on the agricultural sector, the region entered a recession in 2020, the first such downturn in 25 years (World Bank 2021).

However, there is an opportunity to improve agricultural production by focusing on women. Women compose almost half of the agricultural labor force in SSA, are estimated to contribute 60-70 percent of the total labor needed to bring food to the table, and are “the primary users of agricultural land in SSA.” (Agarwal 2014, 1253) However, they face numerous gender-specific constraints that hinder their ability to produce food and provide for their families. They face these on top of other systemic constraints such as corruption, pestilence, and lack of access to capital and inputs. Recognizing these three correlated facts, this paper proposes that the African Development Bank (AfDB) make female-centric agricultural cooperatives a key priority in its agriculture and agro-industry strategy. Supporting female farming cooperatives would improve agricultural productivity in SSA, empower women across the continent, and thereby assist the AfDB in meeting targets set by the Sustainable Development Goals framework.

Considering the systemic and gender-specific constraints women face in agriculture, it is essential to take more action to improve gender equality in this sector in Africa. Multilateral initiatives in this area are underway, such as United Nations (UN) Women, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the World Food Programme, and the International Fund for Agricultural Development’s joint program, “Accelerating Progress Toward the Economic Empowerment of Rural Women.” (United Nations 2018) This program is designed to economically empower rural women in seven developing nations, four of which are in Africa. There are additional bilateral programs between donors and development partners such as the Economic Development of Casamance Programme (PADEC) between the governments of Senegal and Canada that provide support to female-owned and operated farming cooperatives. However, there is no continent-wide program focused on creating, sustaining, and expanding such cooperatives.

The AfDB’s agro-industrial strategy, Feed Africa, is intended to transform Africa’s agricultural sector and achieve food security and sustainable growth on the continent. It aims to promote self-sufficiency, reduce food imports, and increase agricultural exports by focusing on five key areas: investments in value chains, increasing agricultural productivity, promoting entrepreneurship and youth employment in the sector, increasing resilience to climate change, and improving nutrition outcomes (African Development Bank 2016). The AfDB should prioritize assisting farming cooperatives, with a specific focus on female farming cooperatives, to make the most progress on these items.

While the AfDB does invest some resources into female farming cooperatives in SSA, it should do more to help female farming cooperatives realize their potential. The AfDB’s total budget changes each year; from 2019 to 2021, the AfDB’s budget was on average $8.9 billion USD. In 2021, Feed Africa spent just under one billion Units of Account (UA), on investments in the agricultural sector. Highlights of its spending include a $1.4 million USD grant to support female-led cooperatives in Chad (African Development Bank 2021), a $76 million USD investment in the development of irrigation infrastructure in Mozambique (African Development Bank 2021), a $20 million USD loan to establish a poultry processing and feed mill in Ghana (African Development Bank 2021), and a $118 million USD loan to support the development of rural roads in Tanzania (African Development Bank 2021). There is a gulf in investment volume between large-scale projects and support to cooperatives. Additionally, this approach seems scattered, with no overarching strategic vision beyond “improving productivity.” While this paper does not mean to diminish the importance of non-cooperative investments, it argues that the gap between these investments should be reduced.

This paper is divided into four sections. The next section presents an overview of the challenges and potential of the agricultural sector in SSA as well as the gender-specific constraints female farmers face. The third begins by defining what cooperatives are, and outlines the financial and economic benefits of cooperatives, the sociocultural benefits of cooperatives, and how exactly female-centric cooperatives assist women. The fourth and final section provides policy recommendations.

The Agricultural Sector in Sub-Saharan Africa: Challenges and Potential

A Brief Overview of the Agricultural Sector in Sub-Saharan Africa

The agricultural sector in Sub-Saharan Africa is unique because it has and will continue to absorb a large proportion of the labor force (Blein et al. 2013, 5). Growth in the agricultural sector in Africa over the last thirty years occurred mainly due to the cultivation of new land and the mobilization of a larger labor force (Blein et al. 2013, 6). There has been little improvement in the productive capacity of land and human capital, which means growth in productivity per hectare has remained sluggish (Blein et al. 2013, 36). Agricultural production in SSA has increased by 160 percent over the last thirty years. This expansion, however, has not provided enough food to feed Africa’s rapidly growing population. As a result, Africa has transitioned from being self-sufficient to becoming a net importer of food (African Development Bank 2016).

More than half of all people living in Sub-Saharan Africa depend on agriculture for part or all of their income. It is estimated that 10 to 12 million young people enter Sub-Saharan Africa’s labor force each year, while the region only creates 3.1 million new formal jobs per year (Blein et al. 2013, 3). While the informal sector in Africa is growing rapidly and providing some employment opportunities (International Labour Office 2018), the challenge remains for African policymakers to not only increase agricultural production across the continent, but to also find a sustainable method to integrate an ever-growing labor force. 

Potentially cultivable land in Africa, excluding current forest zones, is three times larger than what is currently under cultivation. Furthermore, only six percent of total land under cultivation is irrigated, which means that the supermajority of land currently under production is rain-fed (African Development Bank 2016). There is, therefore, ample room for agricultural expansion across the continent. Large-scale land acquisitions (LSLAs) have often been touted by economists and researchers as a means to achieve both economic growth and food security in the region (Nkansah-Dwamena 2021, 250). LSLAs are acquisitions of large parcels of land by agribusinesses, investment funds, and government agencies (both domestic and foreign) (Thiombiano et al. 2017). These investments can be in: food crop production, production of industrial crops for human consumption and for biofuels, and forest conservation for carbon sinks/carbon trading (Thiombiano et al. 2017).

However, the negative outcomes of LSLAs tend to outweigh the positive. Unless well-designed, LSLAs have a tendency to alienate local stakeholders, contribute little to the local economy, adversely affect vulnerable people’s access to food, and aggravate gender inequalities (Dell’Angelo et al. 2017, 26-27).[ii] The worst effects of LSLAs disproportionately affect those who are already impoverished and vulnerable, and least able to bear them: forest-dependent, pastoralist, and customary smallholder populations, who are dispossessed of their livelihoods and left without other economic options (Ndi 2017). Nor can LSLAs provide adequate employment opportunities for the millions of young Africans joining the labor market each year.

The Current Status of Women in Agriculture Across Sub-Saharan Africa

In SSA, women constitute almost 60 percent of the rural population and are estimated to produce 80 percent of the continent’s food resources (Blein et al. 2013 5). The vast majority of them – 80 percent – achieve this through working as subsistence farmers (Blein et al. 2013, 3). The importance of these women to Africa’s agricultural sector cannot be overstated, yet they are forced to contend not only with systemic constraints, such as a general lack of access to agricultural inputs (fertilizer, seeds), but with gender-specific constraints as well. For example, rules governing ownership and transfer of land rights are less favorable to women than in Asia or South America (Blein et al. 2013, 8). These barriers reduce the productivity of their labor and exacerbate development challenges across the subcontinent.

Due to the fact that most land in Africa is held customarily, women not only face the same problem as men regarding legal recognition of land (that is, that land held customarily often enjoys no concrete legal security) (Efobi et al. 2019, 185) but also face the additional pressures and constraints of patrilineal family systems and/or patriarchal social structures, which tend to exclude women from inheriting land in favor of male relatives(Efobi et al. 2019, 187). Women are often expected to shoulder the bulk of domestic work; they are less likely to be represented in rural cooperatives that supply farmers with inputs; and in many cases their mobility is socially restricted (Agarwal 2014, 1253). Female smallholders face a lack of access to productive resources and low levels of human capital; female farmers tend to use less fertilizer, on average, than their male counterparts (Quisumbing and Pandolfelli 2010, 583-586). Women are often excluded from discussions on development projects in their communities and are typically the first ones to lose customary ownership of agricultural land as they hold few or no official titles (Britwum and Akorsu 2016).

As a result, women have weak property and contractual rights to land, water, and other natural resources (Quisumbing and Pandolfelli 2010, 589). Women typically have fewer resources available to invest in acquiring new assets and are often overlooked when their community is visited by an agricultural extension program (Quisumbing and Pandolfelli 2010, 583-586). Finally, women are not always viewed as equal to men. As a result, men sometimes appropriate crops once these goods enter the market economy and become profitable (Quisumbing and Pandolfelli 2010, 583-586). Furthermore, women who do operate as stakeholders in agricultural and other development projects are often ignored or dismissed by men (Budlender and Alma 2011). Evidence from Ghana suggests that women would have higher agricultural outputs than men if they enjoyed the same access to inputs and extension services as their male counterparts (Budlender and Alma 2011). The Food and Agriculture Organization reports that reducing constraints faced by female farmers could raise yields on their farms by 20 to 30 percent (Food and Agriculture Organization 2020).

Two African female farmers working in a crop field while smiling.

Female farmers at work in a crop field in Kilosa, Tanzania. Photo by: Mitchell Maher / International Food Policy Institute / CC BY-NC-ND

How Agricultural Cooperatives Will Help Empower Sub-Saharan Africans

What Are Cooperatives?

Cooperatives are people-centered enterprises jointly owned and democratically controlled by and for their members to realize their economic, social, and cultural needs and aspirations (Ojiagu 2022).Cooperatives have an administrative structure that provides members with access to credit and agricultural inputs (UN Women, 2018); helps organize members into collective action groups (Ferguson and Kepe 2011, 423); provides them with a network to share new information and best practices (Verhofstadt and Maertens 2014, 88); and grants impoverished members a measure of financial security by turning individual risks into collective ones (Mojo, Fischer and Degefa 2017, 220-221). Cooperatives in SSA allow vulnerable populations to pool their resources together to solve problems, identify common goals, and target the causes and symptoms of vulnerability.

The cooperative model operates across all sectors of economic activity in SSA, including the agriculture, banking, health, and housing sectors. Cooperatives provide SSA with economic opportunities for millions of people, particularly in the rural and urban low-income groups, to escape poverty in a sustainable way (Oladejo 2013). Further, the cooperative structure is compatible with traditional SSA values such as honesty, openness, and social responsibility, is highly likely to create employment opportunities, and offers social protection to rural populations (Kwakyewah 2016). There are three types of agricultural cooperatives in SSA: land cooperatives, marketing cooperatives, and production cooperatives. Some cooperatives perform only one of these functions, while others perform two or all three (Verhofstadt and Maertens 2014, 92).

There are an estimated 2.6 million cooperative organizations around the world, providing services for roughly one billion of the world’s citizens (Birchall and Ketilson 2009, 4-9). Out of those 2.6 million, about 750,000 are agricultural cooperatives (Ferguson and Kepe 2011, 422). It is unclear how many agricultural cooperatives exist in SSA, but there are thousands in Uganda (Ahimbisibwe 2019), Nigeria (Nzor 2021), Kenya (Borzaga et al. 2023), and Ethiopia (Hasen and Mesfin 2017, 3-5). It can be reasonably assumed that there are agricultural cooperatives in many, if not all, SSA countries due to their large agricultural labor forces.


Case study: An agricultural cooperative in action

The Manyakabi Area Cooperative Enterprise (MACE) in Uganda was established in 2004 and is an umbrella organization that supports farmers’ groups in the Isingiro District. MACE provides its members with agricultural inputs at predictable prices, a truck and other vehicles to transport their produce, agronomical training sessions, and access to a warehouse equipped with processing equipment. MACE also provides its members with access to land to plant trees (MACE 2022). MACE represents 143 groups, and approximately 9,000 member farmers’ groups are predominantly female (Ferguson and Kepe, 2011 421-422). MACE assists its members to market their produce, purchase seeds and fertilizer, and access market information (Ferguson and Kepe 2011, 422-425).

Before the cooperative existed, its female farming groups experienced low yields, suffered predatory middlemen in the value chain, and sold their produce at low rates. After joining the cooperative, which received support from the United States Agency for International Development and the Uganda Development Bank to construct processing, administrative, and storage facilities, MACE became a major maize miller and supplier in Western Uganda and neighboring countries like Rwanda and Tanzania (MACE 2022). The facilities allowed MACE’s members to add more value to their produce, cut out predatory middlemen in the value chain, and earn more from their produce and related by-products. Furthermore, these buildings provide employment opportunities to locals in administrative, sales, milling, and warehouse positions. MACE members are also able to access a farm store, providing them with access to fairly priced seeds, farming implements, fertilizer, and other necessary inputs: “[MACE’s] input shop helps us with seeds on credit. [A member] can get 20 kilograms of seeds and repay with five kilograms extra as profit to the group” (Jane Mataala, MACE member).

MACE has also improved access to credit for its members: in 2021, the organization loaned and successfully repaid 300 million Ugandan shillings (about $80,000 USD) from the Uganda Development Bank. MACE provides its members with greater bargaining power, as the cooperative produces about 250 tons of maize flour per month and negotiates prices on behalf of its approximately 9,000 members. Training sessions organized by MACE increased its members’ yields, with one member reporting raising her yield from one ton per acre to four. The extra income permitted her to pay for her children’s’ education and to build a house. While MACE membership has increased yields and incomes for constituent farmers’ groups, the positive impact of cooperatives does not stop there. Members report improved confidence, negotiating skills, knowledge transfer from member to non-member, and more decision-making power domestically. Members also report an increased sense of empowerment as one of the major benefits of the cooperative, alongside increased economic power.

Financial and Economic Benefits of Agricultural Cooperatives

Successful cooperatives tend to be more stable and better equipped to survive crises than private enterprises thanks to their organizational structure: members are customers are producers are owners (Birchall and Ketilson 2009, 4). Agricultural cooperatives in SSA are no different. Cooperative development across the world indicates that organized farmers benefit from aggregated links to markets and services that help them achieve higher yields and incomes (Abebaw and Haile 2013, 84).

Evidence from SSA supports the conclusion that membership in a cooperative brings financial and productivity benefits, and that these benefits provide strong incentives to create and join cooperatives. Traditional, non-contractual, market sales are one-off transactions between farmers and retailers, with no promise of repeat transactions or reliable income (Rao, Brümmer, and Qaim 2012, 899-902). By contrast, contract farming (CF), where an agreement is made between farmers and downstream buyers, typically involving the provision of inputs and services to the farmer in exchange for the supply of produce to the buyer (Senakpon, Swinnen, and Maertens 2013, 141), offers a much more reliable source of income for farmers. Unsurprisingly, the popularity of CF has grown rapidly in recent decades (Mishra et al., 2018, 866-870).

CF stimulates technology and skill transfer and promotes sanitary and phytosanitary standards (Mishra et al. 2018, 869-871). It has been estimated that contract farming for fresh produce exports increases farmers’ income by more than 100 percent (Senakpon, Swinnen, and Maertens 2013, 155). Participation in CF for supermarkets in Kenya led to a 23 to 26 percent increase in agricultural technology adoption in smallholder farms, which in turn led to an increase in farm productivity (Rao, Brümmer, and Qaim 2012, 899).

However, CF can also lead to a loss of autonomy and control of farming enterprises, the depression of prices, the imposition of strict quality requirements, and breaches of contract by the buyer (Senakpon, Swinnen, and Maertens 2013, 159). Due to a general lack of education, smallholders often are unaware of their legal rights and are easily exploited by buyers negotiating in bad faith (Little and Watts 1994). Cooperatives help smallholders even the score. They not only protect smallholders from exploitative contractors, but also ensure longevity and stability of CF by providing smallholders with collective bargaining power and by monitoring and regulating the functioning of contacts between producers and buyers (Mishra et al. 2018, 883). Furthermore, they reduce transaction costs per unit, reduce the cost of contract arrangement and coordination, and resolve information and communication gaps (Mishra et al. 2018, 876).

The Manyakabi Area Cooperative Enterprise for example, has a contract to provide maize flour and beans to the World Food Programme (WFP) (MACE 2022). By themselves, its members would not provide enough flour and beans to make individual contracts worth the time of the WFP. The collective bargaining power enabled by cooperative membership allows each smallholder to sell their produce at fair prices to the WFP.

Increased prevalence of farming cooperatives in Africa is also positively correlated with fertilizer use, pesticide adoption, higher income, produce yields, and technology adoption (Holloway et al 2000, 281). Primary data from Ethiopia reports that cooperative membership improves the average fertilizer adoption rate by about 10 percent (Abebaw and Haile 2013, 83) whilst evidence from Rwanda indicates that cooperative membership increases the likelihood of using mineral fertilizer (Verhofstadt and Maertens 2014, 87-88). Evidence from Nigeria indicates that cooperative membership improves the likelihood of using pesticides to improve yields by 85.6 percent compared to nonmembers (Colade 2014, 341).

Verhofstadt and Maertens find that average annual farm income for cooperative members is significantly higher than nonmembers, that cooperative membership increases annual farm income by 40 percent, and that 34 percent of cooperative member households are poor whilst 54 percent of nonmember households are poor (Verhofstadt and Maertens 2014, 87-88). Groundnut farmers who were part of a farming cooperative in Western Sudan had on average a much higher income than nonmembers (Abdelrahman and Smith 1996, 14). Finally, a Zambian case study has identified that cooperative membership increased the probability of technology adoption by 11 to 24 percent and increased the speed of adoption of improved maize varieties by 1.6 to 4.3 years (Manda et al 2020, 123).

Cooperatives help stimulate job creation by making smallholders more efficient and increasing their yields. This increases income, which increases expenditure in the local market. The financial and economic benefits of cooperative membership are clear. On the whole, cooperative members tend to be wealthier, have higher yields, and introduce new technology more frequently than nonmembers. They help their members overcome collective action problems, introduce new practices and technologies, provide their members with risk mitigation, and help improve human and farm capital.[iii] Evidence from MACE exemplifies these benefits, with members reporting higher yields, incomes, and greater purchasing power (MACE 2022).

The financial and economic benefits of cooperative membership are clear. On the whole, cooperative members tend to be wealthier, have higher yields, and introduce new technology more frequently than nonmembers.

What Sociocultural Benefits do Cooperatives Offer?

The sociocultural benefits of agricultural cooperatives include empowering impoverished people and advancing their aspirations, providing a network of peers, and disseminating information throughout rural communities. Accessing a network of peers and an organizational structure that dispenses information throughout communities, empowers cooperative members by improving their “confidence, negotiating skills, and ability to be of service to their communities by transferring skills to non-members,” all of which improves broad development outcomes (Ferguson and Kepe 2011, 421-429).

The provision of a network of peers helps smallholders break the poverty cycle (Mojo, Fischer, and Degefa 2017, 218-219). Because individuals tend to draw their aspirations from the lives and/or achievements of peers or near-peers, peer networks positively shape smallholder aspirations. The successes of peers within the cooperative network, combined with the fact that cooperatives facilitate access to information and technical assistance like agricultural extension programs, contributes to an improvement in agricultural production, farm income, and the widening of the aspirations of individual members (Mojo, Fischer, and Degefa 2017, 218-219). What this means in practice is that smallholders begin to believe that they are able to induce the change that they would like to see in their communities. Cooperative members are more likely to engage in behavior that results in positive development outcomes like investing in assets, income saving, and investing in education for their children (Mojo, Fischer, and Degefa 2017, 218-219).

Cooperatives help disseminate information throughout their communities (Ferguson and Kepe 2011, 427). For example, as well as providing members (most of whom are female) with a collective bargaining apparatus, MACE serves as an educational forum, providing access to information about best practices, future agricultural extension programs, health, education, and savings initiatives, which contribute to community development programs (International Labour Office 2007). While it is difficult to quantify the effect of disseminating non-agricultural information on agricultural outcomes, qualitative evidence from MACE indicates that the intangible benefits experienced by cooperative members result in greater social empowerment, which in turn inspires further constructive outcomes (Ferguson and Kepe 2011, 424-425).

Greater social empowerment is fundamental to improved development outcomes (Combaz and Mcloughlin 2014, 9). Members of cooperatives are more likely to have the opportunity to meet experts in development, cooperative promotion, and agronomy (Mojo, Fischer, and Degefa 2017, 218-219). The support of the Economic Development of Casamance Programme (PADEC) for a cooperative in Casamance resulted in the creation of jobs, and also better access to education for children and improved living and sanitary conditions (Global Affairs Canada 2017). Further, members of the Manyakabi cooperative report that they “have [stronger voices]” in their community and that they “developed greater independence, leadership, and negotiating skills” (Ferguson and Kepe 2011, 421-425). Agricultural cooperatives are effective conduits for communication: a group, owing to numerical visibility and credibility, has more power to convincingly communicate members’ needs to external actors such as governments and corporations (Mojo, Fischer, and Degefa 2017, 218-219).

Why Female Cooperatives in Particular?

It is evident that cooperative membership is linked to a host of positive outcomes for farmers in SSA. However, Fischer and Qaim argue that the poorest and the richest farmers are least likely to participate in cooperative membership (Fischer and Qaim 2021, 1258). The upshot is that those least likely to participate in cooperatives (wealthy farmers excluded), are female smallholders. The challenge is to increase female membership in cooperatives, so as to improve their productivity and their income, and by doing so encourage positive development outcomes.

Female cooperatives assist women in overcoming both systemic and gender-specific constraints. As women typically control fewer resources to invest in new assets than men (Quisumbing and Pandolfelli 2010, 589), cooperatives can function as land-acquisition devices, wherein the capital of members is pooled and used to purchase land which is then divided amongst members. When women have land and the corresponding legal rights to it, their access to and privileges with an agricultural produce buyer increases (Efobi et al. 2019, 181-183). Their access to inputs such as fertilizer and advanced tools increases (Verhofstadt and Maertens 2014, 88-94). Their yields and income rise (UN Women 2018). Women also gain greater control over their households’ agricultural produce, which increases their economic power within their household and improves their social status (Ferguson and Kepe, 2011 422-425). Furthermore, female-centric cooperatives change social dynamics by empowering women; children in Ethiopia, for example, no longer view asset ownership as a fundamentally male function (UN Women 2018).

Returning once more to the MACE case study, the region which MACE is situated in, the Isingiro district of Uganda, is a water-stressed region and at high risk of food insecurity (Katehangwa and Matsika 2022). MACE provides its members, the majority of whom are women, the means to overcome both general and gender-specific smallholder challenges. MACE simplifies access to capital, inputs, and training. It solves collective action problems for smallholders and secures them a greater part of the agricultural value chain. And it socially empowers its members by increasing their confidence, bargaining skills, and leadership. MACE is a clear example of the rationale underpinning this paper’s argument: that supporting female-focused agricultural cooperatives leads to economic and social development.

Why Empowering Women is Smart Economics

Positive development outcomes, such as improved child health, literacy, nutrition, and sanitation flow from the social and economic empowerment of women (Ravenga and Shetty 2012, 49). Women who control more of their income are more likely to work harder and longer; investing in women’s capital helps shift a society, Bloom, Kuhn, and Prettner argue, from high fertility to low fertility over the long term (Bloom, Kuhn, and Prettner 2017, 53). Childhood stunting, for example–the impaired growth and development that children experience from poor nutrition–can be reduced by empowering women and improving household income (Vaivada et al. 2020, 781-783). Female-centric agricultural cooperatives not only empower women by providing them with a more reliable source of income, but also by providing them with leadership training, improved negotiation skills, and confidence (Ferguson and Kepe 2011, 428-429).

Organizing female smallholders via farming cooperatives is an excellent way to construct stable, democratically oriented organizations that focus on improving farm productivity. Improving farm productivity will lead to an associated increase in female income, which results in greater positive development outcomes. For example, women and men’s differential in planting improved varieties of maize (39 percent and 59 percent, respectively) has been explained by the fact that men have better access to complementary inputs than women. Once these inputs were controlled for, the sex of the farmer had no effect on adoption decisions. Therefore, when given equal access to complementary inputs, women are just as likely to use them as men (Quisumbing and Pandolfelli 2011, 421-423). Investing in female agricultural cooperatives in Africa is not just morally right, but is also “smart economics.[iv]

Investing in women working in the agricultural sector will increase the likelihood of meeting and even exceeding the benchmarks set out by the Sustainable Development Goals framework. Investments in female farming cooperatives will help progress at least five of the SDGs focused on ending poverty (Goal 1) and hunger (Goal 2), empowering women and ending gender inequality (Goal 5), creating decent employment opportunities and economic growth (Goal 8), and building sustainable and resilient cities and rural communities (Goal 11).

Policy Recommendations

Although it is clear that female farming cooperatives provide economic and sociocultural benefits, they need additional assistance to overcome challenges. Many cooperatives fail due to a lack of consistency in membership and poor access to finance (Verhofstadt and Maertens 2014, 88). Other factors that lead to cooperative failure are: poor management, lack of training, conflict amongst members, and a lack of funds.

The African Development Bank (AfDB) is well-positioned to provide the solutions to those factors. It is Africa-focused and highly legitimate. The Bank employs agronomy, business management, leadership, and conflict-mediation experts.[v] The AfDB, working with and through local development banks and agencies, will be able to provide cooperatives with location-sensitive, expert information, as well as with financial security.

Making the assistance of female farming cooperatives a key priority area for the AfDB will directly assist it in meeting Sustainable Development Goals 1, 2, 5, 8 and 11.[vi] It will do this by helping to improve smallholder agricultural production (Goals 1 and 2), to improve the status of women in their local communities, to empower women to be the agents of change in their communities (Goal 5), and to create new, sustainable employment opportunities both in cities, and, more importantly, in rural areas (Goals 8 and 11). Additionally, AfDB has the opportunity to become a leader in this field. While there are several disparate multilateral and bilateral efforts to assist female farming cooperatives, there is no single government and/or institution primarily focused on improving female cooperatives across the region.

While the AfDB does currently provide support to farming cooperatives in SSA, it could do more. The AfDB should make female farming cooperatives a cornerstone of its agricultural strategy, with the following concrete steps:

Mandate that a certain percentage of its agricultural assistance projects work exclusively with female smallholders.

These projects should include cooperative experts, who can advocate for and help construct cooperatives in rural communities. Although some recommend the bank support all farming cooperatives regardless of gender, without applying both gendered and regional lenses the AfDB risks exacerbating existing inequalities and failing to support those most in need of it.

Act as a lender of last resort to cooperatives experiencing cash flow problems.

A concept driving policy creation in the African Union is “African solutions to African problems” (Mngomezulu 2019, 11-14). Supporting local, grassroots, female farming cooperatives that provide solutions to low farm productivity to underuse or misuse of agricultural inputs, through to predatory downstream buyers and to a lack of land, fits this concept perfectly. The AfDB can support small, grassroots cooperatives by providing earmarked funding to regional and country-specific development banks and agencies, such as the Uganda Development Bank and the East African Development Bank.

Start a fund focused entirely on providing assistance to female farming cooperatives.

Such a fund would augment the bank’s current initiatives by establishing a guaranteed investment pool for farming cooperatives that local and regional investment banks and agencies could draw from. Making more capital available to farming cooperatives in SSA is imperative; agricultural enterprises in SSA face a $74.5 billion USD funding gap in 2023 (ACELI Africa 2020). Helping bridge that gap by providing steady investments targeted at agricultural cooperatives will help create new jobs, improve the efficiency and productivity of smallholder farmers, and increase the income of smallholders across the region. Increasing incomes will help improve development outcomes and create more employment opportunities in the rural economy.

The AfDB operates several purpose-built funds already, including the sustainable energy fund for Africa, the Rural Water Supply and Sanitation Fund, Special Relief Funds, and the Congo Basin Forest Fund. Launching a new purpose-designed fund would send a strong signal to philanthropists, investors, and policymakers that the AfDB is committed to supporting agricultural cooperatives, and would help mobilize more capital for cooperative enterprises.

Implement complementary large-scale infrastructure projects.

The bank should implement more holistic investments in regions, wherein infrastructure investments like the ones in Tanzania and Mozambique are accompanied by investments in local farming cooperatives. If the conditions for economic activity are realized via a large investment in infrastructure, but there is no capital (whether human, physical, or investment) in the local economy, future economic development in the region will be uneven and weighed against those with the least initial capital. In typical parts of rural Sub-Saharan Africa, those with the least capital tend to be pastoralists, hunter-gatherers, and female smallholder farmers.

Special Considerations

Inclusion. For cooperatives to be successful, they need to be both inclusive and effective; when the poorest farmers are not included in membership, existing inequalities are aggravated and development outcomes worsened (Verhofstadt and Maertens 2014, 95-98). Moving ahead, therefore, it is imperative that the AfDB treat inclusivity as a foundational aspect of agricultural cooperatives.

Local Lens. Additionally, it is foundational to the success of cooperatives that they are manifestations of their community and maintain a strong degree of independence from external actors (Ishemo and Bushell 2017, 13). Cooperatives that lack a grassroots base and democratic allegiance, a relatively equal risk-sharing apparatus, and are heavily dependent on external assistance for their survival are self-defeating (Ishemo and Bushell 2017, 13). Evidence from Jamaica states that female farmers tended to join cooperatives in times of plentiful external assistance, and vanish when the assistance ran out (Ishemo and Bushell 2017, 13). Moving forward, the AfDB must be sure to mandate that cooperatives receiving assistance are firmly founded in the communities which they purport to represent. Cooperatives need to be self-helping if they are to survive.

Buy-in. Cooperative membership must simultaneously be open and inclusive, but also cost enough capital to impose a sense of commitment upon new members. Without a sense of commitment, members will not be invested in the success of their cooperative.

Avoiding Backlash. Female-focused initiatives sometimes face resistance from men, perceiving such initiatives as threats to their economic or social status. Projects which alter power dynamics can lead to conflict and backlash against women (Doss et al 2018, 69-74). Therefore, projects that support female cooperatives must take into account local gender and power dynamics, and social norms. Helping local communities understand that increased women’s empowerment can benefit them will help bring men onside, increase buy-in from the community, and reduce the chance of backlash from other community members.

5. Conclusion

Female farming cooperatives offer huge promise. The potential for growth in the agricultural sector of Sub-Saharan Africa is enormous. Furthermore, African policymakers have a responsibility to create worthwhile employment opportunities for the rapidly growing number of young people on the continent. As the African rural population continues to grow, improving the productivity of smallholder farmers will not only provide Africans – young and old alike – with greater income, but will also help to absorb an ever-expanding workforce. The best way to improve the productivity of smallholders is to help them help themselves, by promoting and empowering farming cooperatives across the region. Emphasizing the creation and expansion of female farming cooperatives will empower women – the majority of the rural population in SSA – and generate improved development outcomes.


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About the Author

Photo of Henry Adlam standing in front of a house while smiling.

Henry Adlam is a recent Master’s graduate from the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University. His research focused on Development studies, with a focus in agricultural productivity and the power of cooperatives and collective action, and on global innovation policy. His research interests include — but are not limited to: the role of government in supporting domestic innovation and the potential of cooperatives to solve collective action problems and create economic development that works for everyone. In his spare time, he can be found taking long walks on the beach and wishing he lived in Southern France.  

*This article was edited by Amanda Stark (Princeton University) and Allison Blauvelt (Princeton University).


I would like to thank my father, Tom, for his guidance and encouragement. I could not have written this article without his support. I would also like to thank my JPIA editors, Amanda and Allison, for their wonderful suggestions and comments. This piece would not be the same without their consistent support, for which I am eternally grateful.  


[i] See Figures 1-4 in Appendix A for a graphical representation the low productivity of the agricultural sector in SSA as well as employment statistics and agricultural potential

[ii] See Figure 5 in Appendix A for the complete list of negatives associated with LSLAs

[iii] See Figure 6 in Appendix A for a graph of improved production and postharvest outcomes derived from cooperative membership.

[iv] For a complete breakdown of why empowering women socially and economically is effective, please refer to Ana Revenga and Sudhir Shetty’s “Empowering Women is Smart Economics”

[v] This information was collected from the ‘Current Vacancies’ list on the AfDB website

[vi] For the list of Goals, see Figure 6 in Appendix A


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Figure 1: Fertilizer Consumption: Kilograms Per Hectare of Arable Land

Line chart showing kilograms of fertilizer per hectare of arable land by region from 2003 to 2016.

Figure 1: Fertilizer Consumption: Kilograms Per Hectare of Arable Land. Prepared by the author using data available from the World Bank’s DataBank.

Figure 2: Employment in Agriculture (percent of total employment)

Line chart showing employment in agriculture as a percent of total employment, by region.

Figure 2: Employment in Agriculture (percent of total employment). Prepared by the author using data available from the World Bank’s DataBank.