With the commemoration of National Women’s Day on 9 August, the role of women in the economy and society received much media attention. This included some important data on the employment of women in agriculture, particularly in rural areas. According to Statistics South Africa, women make up about a third of the South African agricultural sector’s total labour force. In many cases, the advent of agricultural investments has boosted women’s share of the local labour force; however, many women in the sector continue to be confined to lower paid and unskilled jobs, and paid comparably lower wages than men. Sadly, almost two-thirds of the workers who lost agricultural jobs in the first quarter of 2017 were women. Yet, many policy-makers, institutions and development experts acknowledge the empowerment of women as a core strategy to uplift the world’s poor.

This gender-focused approach is largely due to emerging research on “the multiplier effect”, the concept that investing in women not only affects them individually, but also their family members and communities as a whole. Women who earn an income are powerful catalysts for growth because they tend to invest as much as tenfold more of their income than men into the health, education, and well-being of their families. The World Bank’s report on “Food and Agriculture Global Practice” affirms that employment opportunities created by investors have begun to reduce cultural and social obstacles to the employment of women in agriculture. “The Business Case for Women’s Employment in Agriculture” published by the International Finance Corporation (IFC) indicates that some companies prefer to hire women as they are perceived as more responsible and reliable. More women are currently switching from temporary to permanent positions and have increasing opportunities for promotion.

Case studies have shown that gender diversity leads to better decision-making, more innovation, improved productivity, and reduced recruitment and turnover costs. Verifiable commitment to best labour practices also increases access to quality buyers and high-value markets. These findings resonate with the aims and experience of our Agri-funds. The farms in all our funds are required to comply with IFC Performance Standards, which promote non-discrimination and equal opportunities for all workers, as well as the integration of women’s perspectives and proficiencies. One of our farm operators elaborates: “We like to use women workers because they are generally better with grapes, which are delicate and need careful handling. We also find that women are often more detail-oriented, which suits the work in our packhouses.”

The funds’ education and healthcare programmes have also made a significant contribution to the empowerment of our farms’ female workers. For women, the social benefits of literacy programmes are particularly enhanced when accompanied by skills training and access to health facilities such as those provided by our agri-funds. These benefits include improved autonomy and decision-making within the household, increased life expectancy and lower child mortality rates and the creation of an environment where individuals seek knowledge and information, thereby empowering themselves to change their lives and those of the next generation. In August 2012, the first participants in our Adult Education (AET) programme, nineteen women employed on our Marble Hall farm, wrote their initial AET exams. Their courses covered a broad range of life skills, including reading and interpreting instructions, using money,  esponding to community and school notices, analysing everyday situations and expressing their opinions.

Some of these women had been unable to read or write, or even hold a pen, and their achievement was celebrated at a graduation ceremony held in their honour. The transformation of these ladies was palpable, in both their poise and their interaction with others. Since then, workers on the funds’ farms have written exams in 363 modules through our AET programme, ranging from level one to Matric. Examples of some of the other training offered to the women working on our farms can be seen on pages 15 and 16 of this report.

Sources: www.statssa.gov.za, www.ifc.org, www.fao.org, www.businesslive.co.zawww.futuregrowth.co.za