Across Africa, 80% of agricultural production comes from smallholder farmers, most of which are rural women. Yet, in countries like Senegal, only 20% of women have access to financial services and less than 30% of them are involved in governance for their Producer Organizations (POs). As a result, many women struggle to scale their farms and build their businesses. This blog explains how the ICCO STARS program, a Learning Lab partner, is working to address this challenge and empower female farmers through stronger access to finance.

By Assane Diop, Idrissa Ba and Diane Igirimbabazi of the ICCO Cooperation STARS Program 


Opportunities and challenges of a woman farmer

Marie Sow, a 30-year-old onion producer in Senegal’s Potou, Louga region (220 km north of Dakar) is a dynamic woman, with a breadth of responsibilities in her daily life. In addition to working on her farm (1.5 Ha), she provides food for her family, cares for her children, and tends to the day to day tasks of managing her household.

Similar to many other farmers in Senegal, Marie chose to grow onions because of a few key benefits, including low risk for parasites, long shelf-value, and high return on investment. The Senegalese government also sees the importance of the onion value chain and has developed a national plan to increase production and improve local self-sufficiency. In fact, as a step forward in supporting local onion production and its commercialization, the government has blocked onion importation for approximately eight months every year.

While Marie sees great opportunities in onion production, she still faces many challenges, including limited access to finance to invest in quality inputs and equipment, lack of information on good agriculture practices, and poor access to markets to sell her products. When asked about her experience with financial services, Marie has voiced a need for better access to cash to invest in her business and purchase equipment for irrigation.


“With lack of cash, it becomes difficult to pay seasonal workers at the harvesting period, therefore, we are obliged to harvest and sell our production before the right time so we can pay workers and afford other supporting equipment that we need.”


The ICCO STARS approach, improving the position of women in the value chain 

The Strengthening African Rural Smallholders (STARS) program, a five year initiative of ICCO Cooperation and in partnership with The MasterCard Foundation, is working to address this challenge. With programs launched in Ethiopia, Rwanda, Burkina Faso, and Senegal, the STARS program is committed to helping 210,000 smallholder farmers (50% of them being women) end the cycle of poverty and work toward a food secure world. In Senegal, STARS is working with 39,500 smallholders, focusing on the value chains of onion and niébé, a type of black eyed pea.

The STARS program believes that through proper assessment of needs, appropriate capacity building, linkage to the right agricultural business development services, and access to finance, women across value chain can adopt sustainable agri-business methods and become competitive players in the market. To make this possible, the STARS team is focusing on three key areas within the value chain:

  • Strengthening cooperatives for women: The STARS program is working with cooperatives and POs to ensure that they are better organized, sensitized, and coached to engage female producers. This technical assistance includes financial and business management training. STARS is also developing a gender sensitive capacity building program that builds on gender sensitive value chain analysis and the results of several ScopeInsight assessments. This program will target and train PO leaders and technical staff on leadership, management, marketing and technical skills.
  • Professionalizing business models for processing organizations: ICCO will work closely with existing female processing units to improve and develop their business models. This includes upgrades to their processing technology and training on good processing practices.
  • Improving access to markets: The STARS program is working with female cooperative groups involved in onion value chains to improve seed bulb multiplication, identify market access points, and facilitate market uptake. As a result, women will be better positioned to sell their products and grow their businesses.
  • Improving access to financial services: In partnership with local microfinance institutions, such as MECZOP, a branch of UMF Louga, the STARS program is developing agri-group loans, agri-individual loans, and value chain finance tailored to farmers in the onion value chain. STARS is also working closely with MFIs and producers to design affordable and customer-centric solutions – including risk-mitigation tools such as the Cooperative Assessment Matrix (CAM) and Agricultural Credit Assessment tool (ACAT).

With innovative and client-driven solutions, women like Marie can invest in their businesses and afford necessary agricultural inputs – such as drip irrigation systems and solar powered equipment – to grow their businesses and improve their livelihoods. With the right opportunities and tools, female farmers can become effective entrepreneurs, allowing them to make steps toward lifting themselves and their households out of rural poverty. 


About ICCO Cooperation:

ICCO Cooperation is an international NGO that supports small-scale farmers for sustainable farming, agri-business value chain, and to increase their financial inclusion. The organization has over 50 years of experience and has specialized services such as ICCO Terrafina Microfinance

www.icco-cooperation.org