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Cambridge Global Food Security

An Interdisciplinary Research Centre at the University of Cambridge

To celebrate the 2022 International Women's Day theme of promoting women's equality, and to honour the work that women do to help make our world more food secure, this year we are profiling women who work in gender development. In this interview, Patricia Biermayr-Jenzano reflects on the important roles that women hold in agricultural value chains.  

I am a social scientist and gender specialist who has conducted extensive research in relation to the feminization of agriculture and women’s participation in food security and food systems transformation. I hold an MSc and a PhD in Agriculture and Social Anthropology from Cornell University, NY and an Agricultural Engineering degree in Plant Science from Buenos Aires, Argentina. My research and applied work has deep roots in Participatory Action Research (PAR) theory and practice. I have been deeply involved on mainstreaming gender in agriculture and conservation-related efforts, with an emphasis on women and Indigenous Communities. Currently, I am the Gender and Agribusiness Coordinator for Latin America at the International Finance Corporation (IFC), and I advise the European Union in Food Systems Science. I share my hands-on experience as an Adjunct Professor with students at the Center for Latin America Studies, and the Women and Gender Studies at Georgetown University, in Washington DC. I have conducted applied research for several CGIAR Centers (CIAT, ICARDA and IFPRI) and IDRC, Canada, and evaluation tasks for the FAO and IFAD, always with a focus on gender.

In my professional life I feel like I am navigating between two worlds - I am in some ways a doer, a person who works in the field, an educator, an extension person, and somebody who conducts hands-on work with people. On the other hand, I have strong feelings to reflect on theory, reflecting on methodology issues, and searching for the right ways to conduct meaningful research. So, I cannot say that I am 100% academic or 100% a practitioner. I feel like I am always walking this difficult pathway and trying to bring light to both worlds. This means going from academia to inform the people, and from the people who are affected by our research and policies to the policymakers and the academics. Sometimes, I feel like I am performing a balancing act. Since I have been in the field and in academia, I feel like I am a 'hybrid', if we talk in agricultural terms. I feel like I am in changing waters, changing environments, and paradigms all the time. That’s the way I feel and how I wanted to introduce myself, I am always embracing the multi-disciplinary perspective.

I think that the Latin American perspective is very important and shows differences and commonalities with women around the world. I have worked in many countries in Latin America, particularly in Central America and the Caribbean, which is an integral part of the region, and in South America as well. I am from the very south of Latin America, I am from Argentina. I was trained first as an agronomist in plant science, and afterwards, I became a Social Anthropologist at Cornell University. Most of the projects and programmes that I am currently working on or that I have worked on before were executed or supported by international organizations such as the IFC, the FAO, IFAD and previously some of the CGIAR centers. In this way, my work has been conducted through an international institution, to support or analyze the impact of a development intervention with a focus on gender, food security, good nutrition, and of course to reach women’s empowerment. As an extension person, I strive to engage women to enhance their skills, to become better entrepreneurs, to be good decision makers and to improve their family’s wellbeing. At the same time, we need to look into how we impact the relationship with men as well, because we need to work this duality that is so important. It is crucial to engage men and boys and to work with them, as their participation is central to reach gender equality and gender parity.

I want to talk about a study about sustainable food systems from a gender perspective, or Género y Sistemas Agro Alimentarios Sostenibles in Spanish. The study, implemented by FAO, focused on the development of the value chains of various crops/commodities, how women played pivotal roles to sustain the food system across Latin America, and how women use the system to provide food and connect with business and the market.

The information, collected in a participatory way, included the women’s roles in several value chains, including the production and marketing of quinoa (Bolivia), Cassava (Belize and the Caribbean), maize (Guatemala), and cotton (across 5 countries in the LAC region). In my capacity as a researcher, I utilized participatory inquiry to find out and analyze women’s participation in food systems transformation through their engagement in value chains of these traditional crops, and how they affected their local and household economies. We investigated how women from many different corners of life in Latin America work as part of different production schemes, and how they would express their traditional knowledge, their interests, and their contributions to the economy. Their participation is a very important part of the local business model at the market level in those countries. 

In order to go deeper into the food systems from a gender perspective, I will explain the approach adopted to conduct this study. We compared the role of women in different value chains. In Guatemala, women from Q’echi’ origin (and other indigenous groups as well) produce corn, transform the kernels into tortillas, and sell them in the market. They are the backbone of the whole value chain of production, processing, transporting, and selling their food products at the local markets. At times, we do not think about all what it entails to select a certain crop variety, to produce a 'tortilla', and to go through many preparatory steps to reach the market. All these aspects are intimately related to their unique indigenous knowledge. Since I am an agronomist, I look into the plant breeding aspect, and I am always intrigued about why women decide on the adoption of any given variety, why this one is better than another one, is it because it is more palatable, or because they need to use less pounding force to reduce cooking time, all these questions! In the case of other crops, women use the husk to make arts and crafts, hence they focus also on the flexibility of the stem, the color, and the time it takes to make the crafts. All those aspects are mostly ignored or not taken into consideration in regular plant breeding. The breeders mostly focus on crop production and in terms of increased yields. This study was conducted in northern Guatemala, in Alta Verapaz, where we gathered with the women and visited their fields, their kitchens, and the market. The women were very open to sharing their techniques and preferences about maize as well as other information we are asking for. The information was shared at the local community and municipal level, then finally reached the Ministry of Agriculture (MAGA) and its gender division, which provided support with translating this indigenous knowledge into recommendations about food crops and supporting the women through enhancement programs. What was important for me was the legitimization of the women’s knowledge as an important aspect for crop production and their participation in markets. The information was conveyed at the local and national level, and there was a clear understanding that these women have power and knowledge of the characteristics they select in their crops, and in how they market their products. It is quite interesting because the selection criteria they use is unknown by the breeders, and if they do not conduct a gender analysis of the crop production they will be missing important aspects that are central to improving the value chain of corn, and the access to and the selling of food in informal markets, also know as 'street food'.

There were two other parallel studies to the value chain of corn. In Belize, I researched the women’s participation in the cassava value chain. Cassava is an important staple of Garifuna cuisine, and the women prepare traditional recipes such as Hudut Soup and Fish-like a stew, cassava bread, and other baked goods. The Garifuna women grow cassava, a very humble root, but it is so important for them in their lives. I travelled to Hopkins in Belize, a hub of the Garifuna people, and interviewed the women entrepreneurs. They explained how they select which varieties were utilized for different recipes, those that grow much better, those that are more palatable, and those that are easy to grind, cook or bake. Most of these women I interviewed worked as street food vendors or managed their own small restaurants. Ultimately, they managed their own businesses, they are certified, and they are proud businesswomen. They shared that this root is part of their culture, that cassava recipes were passed on by their mothers and grandmothers, and is part of their tradition but at the same time is part of their business. All the women maintained their families by selling cassava bread on the streets. The production and processing of cassava was also part of new initiatives supported by the Belize Agricultural Research Authority (BAHA) at the Central Farm in San Ignacio, where the women improved their cooking skills by bringing the product to a higher level through cooking schools, nutrition education, and vocational training. The cassava value chain managed by the women has a very important role at the local level, and the recommendations for improvements were well received and adopted by the local agricultural authority.   

The next crop that was part of this study was quinoa, which is an important part of people’s livelihood in the Andes. This crop has strong roots in all the Andean countries. Unknown by the world two decades ago, quinoa today is produced and sold not only locally and regionally but at the international level. I did most of my dissertation research in Bolivia, hence I thought that I was very familiar with this crop's production and the women’s participation in the selection, harvesting, and processing. Today, I found that the women in Uyuni, Salinas de Garzi Mendoza and other localities in southern Bolivia not only maintain the leadership in all those stages, but they have become associated in powerful cooperatives that sell quinoa in the central market of Challapata, in Oruro, and even internationally. Once again, the women demonstrated that they are not only those who are part of every niche of a very marketable crop, but that they go beyond the local production to reach higher production and processing levels that increase their business participation and allow them to focus on better livelihoods for themselves and their families. 

In the case of the quinoa value chain, which has boomed, and is consumed all over the world, it shows that a once forgotten crop can be a strong pillar of the economy. Today the women work in cooperatives, and they connect with processors and with exporters. I was happy to see that the women have improved their standards, and in many cases they are associated in cooperatives that export to the USA and Europe. This is an important aspect of women’s economic empowerment evolving from the production and use of quinoa in their stews to make the grain the source of a booming business. The women mentioned that they can connect to their roots, cultivating this crop and others through their own unique knowledge about which are the best varieties and options for the overall food system. This broader view about how to conceptualize production is also about the soil’s health, nutrition, and the food that they prepare and sell. In the end it is a system, an interdisciplinary system, a way to look at things differently. 

This research project also looked into how women produce and process cotton across several countries in Latin America (1). In this case, the commodity was a fiber, not a food crop, but the women’s participation across the whole value chain was very similar. The women would tend the crop, harvest, process, and even weave beautiful pieces of cloth and commercialize them individually or in cooperatives. Again, the women cotton producers and processors are represented from the planting stage, selecting the seeds, caring for the crop, and transforming the fibers into market items. They have this intrinsic knowledge about the crop and ways to create arts and crafts for a demanding market. 

Some takeaways from this study include that the women would greatly benefit from receiving training, microloans, and business literacy. They perform well in most production stages and also as businesswomen, they are very good traders, and at times we disregard their unique and indigenous knowledge that encompasses aspects of the crop and processing that we are not familiar with. In the end, the women are an integral part of any value chain and of course, men are part of the system too. We need to work with both men and women in different stages and support changes, have role models and strategies to leverage women’s participation.  

This research was very rich in many ways, not only because we reflected on the role of women smallholder farmers, but also because this information was passed on to local organizations, to governments, and was supported by FAO at the country levels. As a person who was doing research or analysis, it was for me very rewarding to see how women work at all those levels in different countries, adopting various crops and how they are able to convey important changes in the value chain and the economy. All these women were different from me, they were of Maya Q’echi’, Garifuna or from Quechua origins, but we connected and shared important insights to make visible their needs and support their accomplishments. In this instance, I gained a clear understanding of how the food system has been transformed by those who performed as part of various value chains.

All those aspects, such as how women access resources, how they maintain and share their knowledge, and at what standards their knowledge is considered by others, is very important. The challenges I have seen go from having very limited access to land, assets, inputs, barriers to obtain credit as well as less education on business management, and most importantly, the consideration that their knowledge is inferior. That is an aspect that I find to be one of the most important challenges; the fact that we as technicians or academics see their learning modes, strategies, and indigenous knowledge as not scientific or not accurate. Women know what they want, they need to have access to education, however, their intrinsic knowledge is also important, they know what they want, and they are not only capable of managing a crop or a business, they are exemplary. Their knowledge is not inferior or superior, it’s different and complementary. The knowledge they have about better crop varieties, how to manage, how to process, and how to perform in competitive markets can be enhanced through training and access to technology. To be able to effectively work with the women, we need to learn what is important for them. For example, ask them: Why do you adopt a certain variety? Why do you use this or that technique to process the grains? Why do you decide to sell your products in certain markets? All these aspects are influenced by their environment, the social fabric where they live and perform and the indigenous knowledge these women hold. For me, the main challenge I had at that time was to be able to navigate their environment, understand their traditions and show respect, trying to be very mindful while learning from them. We forget that there are different perspectives, different lenses, and we do not see that there are ways to approach the production differently. This research made me aware of the needs and problems that the women have across the continent to perform as small entrepreneurs in a variety of agricultural production schemes within the food system. In that way, we need to have standards that allow women to perform in the same way that men do, particularly to reach economic empowerment. 

The main thing that I have always seen in these women producers, women farmers, businesswomen in the agricultural sector is their double burden: they must perform their work-related tasks and take care of what we call the 'care economy' - that includes the household, their children, the elderly, providing for food and water, and health aspects. So it is not a double shift, it is a triple shift sometimes, and women have to perform all these activities. Luckily we have seen that men are changing attitudes in some very traditional environments and that roles have been shifting. Nonetheless, women farmers are those who take care of the food gardens, the livestock, the processing of food, and many other tasks. Ensuring that they have access to childcare, healthcare, transportation, and that they have time to improve themselves is very important. It is so important that we provide the opportunities to engage women in better options and equal participation in value chains and businesses. So I thought that those were the most important challenges that they have, which are structural challenges. Of course, they also face other challenges such as lack of education and information, and few opportunities to open bank accounts and credit options. Those barriers prevent women from investing, and make it difficult for them to be successful business owners.  

In the study I was describing, I was able to see a shift regarding an increase in male participation while sharing household tasks and supporting the women in various ways. I have seen men challenging women to engage in non-traditional careers and roles as well. Women have shown that they have the same capabilities to run a farm and a business, and if they are supported by their male counterparts through equal opportunities and inclusiveness, they will strive as well. Men have to be part of the equation; this is as important for women as for men. Furthermore, there is an understanding and a recognition that when you are exposed to equity and equality from a young age, the results are very positive and with long lasting effects. In that sense, I have a personal story that does not relate to the project but to the expectations of women and their performance in nontraditional roles. I remember myself as my father taught me how to fix a car engine and to look at machines like my brother. At that time, I never thought that I will be working in agriculture, but when I went to college and took mechanics all this knowledge helped me to perform differently. My parents always pushed me to pursue what I consider is better and important but in equal terms to anyone. In the case of this project, I have seen the women working in nontraditional tasks and that they fared much better when they had the opportunity to develop needed skills and pass them on to their daughters. Finally, the women also need to be supported by the community, and the legal and economic system. They have to see themselves as entrepreneurs and businesswomen, and that they are an integral part of their farms, businesses, and markets.  

The study included an analysis of the laws and regulations existing in each country in relation to food processing, access to markets, regulations, and so forth, and we realized that in most cases women were excluded from production schemes and business participation because of their poor access to credit or land ownership. Unfortunately, women smallholder farmers do not always access the same benefits that male farmers are entitled to. I think that women need not only to be recognized as equal partners but have to be supported at a higher level. We must make sure that women have the same opportunities to access education and that they are recognized as equal under local laws and regulations. There is a need to set examples that will inform projects and programmes to facilitate women’s participation as integral partners. Some countries mentioned in this study have improved their outreach and enhanced options for women to be included in government programs and to access to loans through their participation in cooperatives and as small business owners. In Bolivia, however, there is still much more to do. The case of Bolivia is very telling because since the 1990’s the country has embraced programs of intercultural and bilingual education with an emphasis on rural areas, and that has made a significant change in society and in women’s lives.

In the case of the study I described, the challenges were multiple. Those challenges were similar for the women in every country, and they needed to play several simultaneous roles to perform accordingly. The study brought to light how the women’s traditional knowledge and their crop selection criteria were very different and important, considering not only yield and production but quality, taste and business opportunity. What was documented was their knowledge in various fields along the niches of a particular value chain, and how through the understanding of this unique information, governments, breeders, and technicians can adopt and legitimize this indigenous knowledge to work along as equal individuals. In that way, there is an opportunity for women to share their knowledge about the crops, their different processing techniques, and the ways in which the end products can be of a better quality at the market. Obviously, this study was a starting point, but the lessons learned are important for the region and at the country level.

One of the results of the study was the compilation of local laws and regulations across borders, hence we could inform and develop a compendium of suggestions and potential steps to support women’s empowerment at all levels. Through this study, we aimed to support local governments and at a national level this was presented to the FAO country offices. The study showed and highlighted the existing vacuums that affected the women's ability to perform as successful partners in the overall food system. 

One thing that I have been doing is focusing my efforts on rural women’s participation as a business. Since I have seen how these changes in the value chains they participate over time affect the women, I embraced the idea to provide new options and support innovations in many fields. I started working and analyzing women’s roles in value chains at the IFC, precisely with women smallholder farmers and businesses in Latin America. This has opened in my mind like a window of opportunity to connect all these issues and to put those at the service of women entrepreneurs, in business, focusing not only on one commodity or one business, but looking at their broader contributions to the food system as a whole. Women are central to business and to food systems. We are all interrelated, we cannot work and live in separate bubbles or silos. Everybody knows that, but it is on the ground where people are affected by a lack of understanding of how to apply interdisciplinary and intercultural perspectives with a strong gender lens to the agricultural production. So that’s why I have made it my goal to support women entrepreneurs in business and to help them to perform from aspects that go from seed production to the end product at the market level. If women have the opportunity to participate in unique stages and niches at the market level, their presence will improve and enhance the economy and their livelihoods. When women are offered entry points, they can manage their own businesses and enterprises, and they are fantastic. So, I want to continue working in the future in this line of women’s economic empowerment, and not only in Latin America which is my true home. I am proud to be working with women in rural Latin America, and I think that we have a lot to learn from them. 

(1) The study about the cotton value chain was carried out in 5 Latin American countries, Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia, Paraguay and Peru, and was part of the FAO Project CGP/RLA/199/BRA Strengthening of the Cotton Sector through South-South Cooperation.

Image: Workshop with Q'echi' women. Alta Verapaz, Guatemala. Supplied by Patricia Biermayr-Jenzano.