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Female entrepreneurs enter the seed market in rural Afghanistan

18/09/18

New enterprises show what can happen when women participate in the economy

By Yashpal Singh Saharawat

Parwan province – The lack of availability of quality seeds remains a constraint in Afghanistan, hampering agricultural productivity. Against this background, ICARDA recently reintroduced the concept of village-based seed enterprises, which was pioneered in 2004 and 2005. The business development project targets both men and women in rural areas where farming is the main income for households. 

The seed enterprises are managed by farmers and aim to meet the location-specific requirements of quality seed of adopted varieties.

“We now have income from our seed businesses, and it makes us independent and respected in our families and in the community,” said Hangama, head of Hura Jalali Seed Enterprise, in Parwan province of northeastern Afghanistan.

Access to quality seeds, but far from enough

Today, around 135 seed enterprises are operating at various scales throughout Afghanistan. Seventeen of them are established with ICARDA’s support. According to the National Seed Board of Afghanistan, the countrywide demand-supply gap remains massive with an estimated 20,000 Mt of high-quality wheat seed in shortage. In light of this dire need and based on lessons learned from earlier community-based seed enterprise activities, ICARDA worked to enhance access to quality seeds at local level in the past four years.

A challenging environment

Women’s access to livelihood opportunities is significantly restricted in Afghanistan, a country dominated by conservative and patriarchal norms and values. Women’s work is largely restricted to household chores with limited economic options. In this challenging environment, establishing an agribusiness involving only women is a highly sensitive, but unique opportunity that – when successful – can empower women. 

This was the vision for ICARDA’s team in Afghanistan when pioneering the project in 2004. Fourteen years on, instability and insecurity continue to deteriorate communities where people are eager for tangible development opportunities. 

Gender-inclusive approach to entrepreneurship

Since 2014, nine seed enterprises have been established in Kabul, Parwan, and Logar provinces. While none of the new enterprises are run solely by women, three of them consist of both women and men (five of them have only male members). The process has opened new doors to gender inclusion.

At the outset of the project, ICARDA aimed at establishing two female-headed, women-only seed enterprises in Parwan. This turned out to be difficult, the project team’s persistent effort notwithstanding, due to cultural and social constraints. Women have limited involvement in agricultural operations and marketing agricultural inputs and outputs. Women’s right to own land is also restricted. Furthermore, widespread illiteracy among women in the rural areas is a hindrance to participation.

There is still progress. For example, Hangama was elected as the head of Hura Jalali Seed Enterprise, a village-based seed enterprise comprising 14 members (seven men and seven women). Other seed enterprises in the province all involve women and some of the women are in leadership position.

Empowerment through agribusiness

The mixed-gender enterprises have performed significantly better than those run exclusive by men. Additionally, female-led seed enterprises generated higher annual profits and showed higher input use efficiency, both strong indicators of success.

Seed portfolio diversification is an important requirement for the sustainability of any seed business. Hura Jalali Seed Enterprise added soybean to wheat in 2017 and signed a contract on soybean production with an international organization. In 2017, it produced and sold over 6 Mt of soybean seeds. 

“We are seeing progress in our business, and this has encouraged us to invest in this sector,” said Shafiq Azizi, the deputy head of the Hura Jalali Seed Enterprise. “The contract from Nutrition and Education International to produce soybean has given us new hope to expand the business even more.”

The hard work has paid off in Parwan. An in-kind donor grant comprising tools for tomato production, processing, and marketing of fresh and dry (powder) tomatoes is another recognition of Hura Jalali Seed Enterprise’s achievement. It produced 350 Mt of tomato in just one year. An international company purchased part of the harvest upfront; the rest will be dried and turned into tomato powder – using a machine provided by the USAID-funded Regional Agricultural Development Program East (RADP-E) – for sale in the market. 

The new enterprises and associations have brought economic empowerment and improvement in the women’s social standing. Men are no longer the only ones making family decisions and managing businesses and community development.

“We can make decisions now, and even finance them. This is a big and positive change in our lives,” said Hangama. “As the wheat seed marketing is showing promising results, we plan to expand our cultivation area and produce more improved seed for better yields for farmers.”

The Parwan-based enterprise has become a living success story that shows what can happen when women have opportunities to participate in the economy. Not only does it benefit the women themselves, but it also improves the welfare of their children. It is a proof that women can be the true change agents of society. 

Yashpal Singh Saharawat is country manager for Afghanistan at ICARDA. 

The work of ICARDA in Afghanistan is funded by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) - most recently through the Community Livestock and Agriculture Project of Afghanistan’s Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock (MAIL). This project aims to improve food security of rural households in the selected districts of Kabul, Parwan, and Logar provinces by increasing agriculture and livestock productivity. 

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