Improving every day for rural women


    Olam’s ambition to improve smallholder farmer livelihoods cannot be fully achieved without addressing gender equality. A fundamental human right, gender equality is also strongly linked to agricultural productivity and social and economic development. As women, we are personally as well as professionally committed to improving the lives of women every day.

    Yet in many rural communities where we work, women have vastly unequal decision-making power, control over use of income, and access to education, finance, land, and inputs. Entrenched social barriers keep them from accessing productive resources and even household decisions. They are often responsible for duties, such as gathering water and laborious food preparation that can involve hours of husking, cleaning, and pounding rice or maize for it to reach the form that wealthier consumers buy off the supermarket shelves. This then limits or denies them time to engage in remunerative activities or attend training on how to improve their crop production.

    Within our operating groups Olam Food Ingredients and Olam Global Agri, as well as parent company Olam International, we are engaging on these issues head-on. Our initiatives have made meaningful progress and they've revealed new challenges that must be addressed. We're constantly learning new lessons on what we can do differently, better, and/or more routinely, and applying insights from one product line to the others. By sharing our efforts across our businesses, we hope to deepen and speed the improvements we can make in the everyday lives of the women in the communities we serve.

    We've collected 10 keys to our efforts and specific examples of our work in improving the lives of women, and our experiences and progress that may be useful as replicable approaches for other businesses:

    1. Factor in women and wider households when data-mapping

    Back in 2014, we launched the Olam Farmer Information System (OFIS) which provides smallholder farmers with a variety of tools for farm management and collects data that we use to support them. It requires registration in order to provide them with customised support and, at the moment, only one person per farm can be registered as a ‘farmer’ in OFIS.

    One of the ways we use OFIS is to notify farmers via SMS alerts when training sessions are taking place. Often, work on the farm falls to wives or other household members, and unless the registered farmer passes on the text alert, they don’t know about the training. This means that many women and other key farm actors are left out of communications and a relationship with Olam. 

    Already, just under 20% of the 510,000 active farmers registered on OFIS are women. We want to speed that growth. Being able to add other women stakeholders will allow Olam to engage more efficiently with the right person/s on the farm, as well as farm managers, and make sure they're better involved in Olam's work. Through more effective and regular access to the OFIS system, women farmers will be given more targeted training and assistance.

    Going forward, all new registrations will address this, and then we will be updating the current registrations as our enumerators make their physical visits to farms.

    Additionally, OFIS is connected to AtSource, our sustainability insights platform for agricultural supply chains -- including edible nuts, spices, coffee, cocoa beans, rice, dairy, cotton, and palm -- which gives both us and our customers visibility into the key challenges that women face (or by which they are impacted). Here is an example of the data we track at the farm level:

    2. Support women to become farmer leaders by giving them a voice

    At the end of 2019, Olam was providing over 740,000 smallholders with sustainability support, of whom around 13% are women. This support is often provided via a cascade system, where Olam and our partners train farmer leaders who then provide support in their communities. At the end of 2019, of the 14,000 farmer group leaders, 1,865 were women, also about 13% of the total. Getting more women to be leaders is one way to advance their participation overall.

    As we've seen in other industries as well as our own, however, often women can lack confidence to put themselves forward for such leadership roles. In Olam Global Agri’s Rice business, we're undertaking a variety of initiatives to address this issue; for instance, we are working to build mentors and role models by identifying women who come to trainings and ask questions, and gently encouraging them to speak to the group about their progress and challenges. By giving them overt permission to speak freely instead of simply telling them what they need to cover, they're able to help steer conversations authentically and meaningfully. This allows them to stand out and gain nomination to be group leaders, voted by men and women, as well as inspire other women to follow their lead and be more vocal and assertive in their training sessions.   

    Another example: When there is an opportunity to share their efforts via public exposure in newspapers or regional or sector events, the team ensures equal balance between male and female representation. We know that a good tool for giving female leaders a voice is to simply do it and lead by example.

    In addition to empowering women to lead, we equip them with tools to deliver that leadership: Our Olam Direct smartphone app includes detailed fields in which to report fraud, child labour or deforestation issues, as well as access help on farm needs.

    3. Target training content for the needs and interests of women

    In 2019, Olam trained almost 57,000 female farmers on Good Agricultural Practices. Often women are also responsible for the food crop as well as cash crop production so they see a real benefit to those modules.

    We have learned that one lever for increasing women participation in training is to better cater the content to their interests. Again, our rice team noted that training specifically described as mechanical (e.g. how to use or repair particular equipment like a threshing machine or mini harvester) is less likely to attract women, as it’s the men who operate machinery. Instead, we're experimenting with trainers considering making mechanical topics a subset of ‘larger’ training topics on specific crop production techniques.

    Our hazelnut team is doing something similar in Turkey's Black Sea region. We're been engaging with more than dozen women annually for the past few years and training them to be ‘Agricultural Ambassadors’ on topics such as workers' rights, gender equality, and financial literacy. Then, they work with seasonal migrant workers to share their learnings and inspire other women to follow their lead, reaching 649 women over the past two years. Our goal is to reach approximately 5,000 women with this project, with the support of the Foundation for the Support of Women's Work (KEDV).

    4. Ask women what they want to know before delivering the training (and make it interactive)

    Often training modules are set pieces, a bit like the curriculum at school: You need to impart certain information to large numbers of people. This is the fundamental distinction between teaching and learning, the latter being the real enabler of education because it derives from the motivation of the learner.

    This was brought to life in our hazelnut supply chain in Turkey, which relies on a huge migrant workforce during the two-week harvest and can touch on many labour and human rights issues. W hilst we were focused on ensuring there was a first aid kit at each worker home or camp, one on the farm and one in the truck, it turned out that many of the women (and men) labouring during the harvest didn’t know how to do basic first aid. So now, the team meets with women to find out what they want to know, and that includes bringing with them a doctor to give advice on female related health conditions and resources (like the location of the nearest clinic for free vaccinations for children). Not only does this mean the workforce becomes healthier but it also gives women the confidence to speak up when they get to work, and empowers them to assert other rights, such as asking for a contract or access to better water or accommodation. Finally, by addressing their needs and enabling them to better understanding their health, they can relate it to the Human Rights standards in the training sessions, and then get out of the training what we'd hoped they'd gain.

    5. Partner with local authorities and NGOs on the ground

    Companies like Olam are not experts on addressing the healthcare needs that might be unique to individual regions or even farms, yet these issues often impede women's participation in the economic and cultural life of their communities. So, before initiating gender-specific training, especially in remote, rural areas, we reach out to local health and education authorities and NGOs and invite them to join us in programming and conducting those sessions. This makes the whole community much stronger – it’s as much about facilitating connections as it is about training.

    6. Think about where the training is located

    As we noted in the prior point, in some countries the cultural norms may demand separate gender training for women. This can also help take into account that women often have less time than men so the training can be scheduled at a part of the day when they are not having to focus on meal preparation or water collection. Also, training doesn’t only have to be for female farmers and include female labourers also.

    But ‘separate’ isn't just a matter of timing, it also requires sensitivity to location. In Turkey, the hazelnuts team learned from feedback from the Fair Labor Association (FLA) that female labourers and farmers felt most comfortable having the training hosted in schools or in the home, and not on a farm or other venue. This awareness is now taken into account when we schedule training sessions – how to identify places where women feel comfortable.

    7. Challenge your understanding of whether sustainability support is really addressing the  pressures faced by women

    If the average male smallholder has very little to fall back on if there is a bad harvest, or simply facing the chronic difficult conditions imposed by global climate change, then women will typically have even less, especially if they're widows and still trying to raise families. Constraints of poverty and available time mean that they can’t get the training to learn about the mitigation and adaptation measures (such as the importance of planting shade trees to create a micro-climate, or how to prune and have a healthy tree) that will help them address the pressures they face. As a result, they may often be less aware of the importance of protecting forests and the local eco-system.

    Olam is addressing this challenge with multiple approaches:

    • Create other income generating activities, especially ones that are more accessible to women -- With only two harvests a year, cashew farmers in Ghana face often face financial difficulties in the off-season. Our team has worked with the development agency Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit GmbH (GIZ) to train 400 female cashew farmers as beekeepers, leading one participant to report a 15% increase in her income over the year prior.
    • Innovate and scale to build women's vocational and business skills --When men leave agricultural communities in search of higher earnings, women assume many traditionally ‘men's tasks’. However, women are often excluded from non-traditional roles such as driving, machine operation, tractor repairs, agri-inputs trading, field extension work or business ownership, so they don't possess the necessary training. So, Olam has promoted women's tractor drivers working on our coffee plantations in Zambia, machine operators in our Gabon operations, and we are looking to scale and systematise such approaches by such actions as creating a cluster of technology-minded women participating in our cotton business in Côte d'Ivoire.
    • Help women to be financially empowered -- Women's access to banks, savings and loan facilities, and land are very often limited or denied, so we are innovating ways to change that: In Côte d’Ivoire cotton, we help groups of women form Village Savings and Loans Associations (VSLAs), enabling 939 women to save over US$22,500 in 2019, which they invested to create 104 income generation activities and reinforce 129 previously created. Through outreach to community leaders, 224 women were able to access land and farm cotton under their own names – a significant step in a region where traditionally only men may manage cotton farms.
    • Empower them to be environmental leaders -- In Northern Ghana, the baking community is made up of mostly women and they are natural advocates for their local environments but are obligated by economic pressures to use traditional clay ovens fuelled by wood. So, our Grains team partnered with Ghana's EPA to enlist these bakers as caretakers for a tree planting exercise (in hopes of making the region's baking activities carbon neutral). The approach was a success, as the women bakers nurtured the trees to a 50% survival rate and a significant offset to CO2 emissions.

    8. Talk to men and women about gender and women’s rights

    One of the routes to women empowerment is to educate both men and women on what this means via training sessions. In 2019, Olam trained almost 153,000 cashew, chili, cocoa, coffee, hazels, rice farmers – men and women – on gender rights.

    Interestingly, even when you give the training women sometimes refuse to accept it, or still do not appreciate that gender inequality is not often a deliberate attempt by men to silence women but cultural norms perpetuated by both men and women. So, we have seen mixed reactions from women. Sometimes they fear that too much power given to women, could to lead to some acting superior or even abusive to other women.  On the other hand, many women advocate for continuous awareness and remind men to give them respect, as well as their share of the profits from the work. Many women also feel that if the awareness had come far earlier, they would have been inspired long ago.

    In terms of the training itself, we find that gender equality sensitisation is best understood when beneficiaries are guided to do gender analysis themselves. In that way the discussion is not skewed. We often give a global perspective on how the issues play out in other countries and, perhaps more compelling to our participants, why and how they're important to the big customers who buy their crops. This helps translate the issues into motivators for positive action.

    To then work towards social change, we can also look to offer a gateway initiative that appeals broadly to men and women, the elites and marginalised, and whose benefits are clear and whose returns are swift. The VSLAs mentioned earlier serve as an effective entry point to engage men and women in discussing women’s rights. Through the VSLAs women feel respected by the community –their voices have welcomed by other men in the groups - which leads to greater shared decision making with husbands as they have something to contribute in the household.

    Men also see immediate benefits from their wives’ participation. The money women earn often support children’s education, improve the quality of homes and make women less dependent on their husbands’ income. We have seen many husbands show support for their wives by taking over childcare so they can go for training.

    9. Create women entrepreneurs

    In emerging markets, women reinvest 90% of their earnings in their families and communities; and Gates Foundation research shows that if women farmers across the developing world had the same access as men, yields could increase by as much as 30% per household and countries could see an increase of 2.5% to 4% in agricultural output.

    Olam is working on ways to identify and empower women to be agents of change in their local communities, such as providing training, loan support, equipment and even furniture to a woman entrepreneur in Côte d'Ivoire who wanted to found a cashew peeling unit which our cashew supply chain could then utilise.

    Our approach doesn’t just focus on our farmer suppliers. In 2020 Olam joined WeConnect International, which identifies, registers, and certifies women-owned businesses and then provides a platform on which buyers can connect with them. Through this we hope we can expand women’s empowerment through our non-commodity procurement.

    10. Challenge stereotypes

    Traditionally, strict gender roles in rural areas have inhibited economic female potential; at the NCCL coffee estates in Zambia, Olam Coffee has been challenging such stereotypes. Since 2016, over 80 women have been trained in tractor and commercial vehicle operations. It turns out that they're better at it than men: tractors and farm equipment operated by women have lower repair and maintenance costs. This success has led to an important social impact, as it elevates them to be considered authorities when it comes to household budgeting and boosting village savings schemes. It creates pressure on traditional leadership to accept better gender representation in community leadership.


    Women form about half of the agricultural workforce and are agents of change and resilience builders, so it is essential to empower, encourage, and support them. Doing so starts with a clear understanding of their challenges and the contexts in which they, and we, operate. Digital technology can and will play an ever-greater role in enabling the change all of us desire.

    For instance, here is a capture of 2019 gender tracking data for a number of food supply chains that can be at risk from social and environmental issues:

    ProductTotal farmersWomenWomen LeadersNumber of female farmers trained on Good Agricultural Practices (GAP)Number of farmers trained on Gender and Women's rights
    Cashew (Africa and Asia)44,2959710624,4241,984
    Hazels (Turkey)4,501433104333,187
    Superfoods (quinoa, chia, kiwicha) Peru2,10642654260
    Coffee (South America, Africa and Asia)61,6009,966845,51618,703
    Cocoa (South America, Africa, Asia)284,24846,9391,21837,816120,526
    Rice (Africa and Asia)30,1077,3491,0327,3494,341

    Olam's commitment goes beyond reporting to tee-up specific opportunities to affect greater, faster, or more nuanced change, so it's a mechanism for us to partner with our customers. OFIS, which we mentioned earlier, is a key data source that informs the AtSource platform.

    Armed with this knowledge, Olam is ready to continue making a difference in the everyday lives of rural women around the world.

    Read more on our approach to tackling social issues in supply chains in our 2019 Annual Report.

    Read more about our supply chain sustainability platform AtSource here.




    Burcu Turkay Global Sustainability Manager, Olam Nuts, Olam Food Ingredients (Turkey)
    Narawadee Modenuch Research and Sustainability Analyst, Olam Rice, Olam Global Agri (Thailand)
    Brigitte Mugiraneza Human Rights and Inclusion Lead, Olam International (Côte d’Ivoire)

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