Women’s cooperatives boost agriculture and savings in rural Ethiopia

Through women’s cooperatives, a joint UN programme provides training in agricultural techniques, improved seeds and time-saving machinery, while also granting loans and encouraging saving.

In most parts of the Dodola district, 300 km south of Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, slow-moving oxen plowing opens stretches of farmland. But in one field, a red tractor is speedily tilling women’s cooperative owned farmland ahead of the rainy season.

For Kamso Bame, a widowed mother of 12 and owner of 2.5 acres of land, the tractor has shaved off days of grueling labour.

Bame is among more than 2,000 smallholder women farmers involved in a joint UN program to boost sustainable agricultural production and rural women’s economic empowerment, through training and cooperatives.

After Bame joined the women’s cooperative in her village of Wabi Burkitu, she received a 7,000 Birr (259 USD) loan, which she used to start a cart-transport service. Bame uses her daily average income of 400 Birr (15 USD) to support her children, four of whom live independently. Her membership also enables her to cultivate the land using a tractor owned by the cooperative.

“Before the death of my husband, whenever the rainy season came, I remember him spending three to four days ploughing the family’s land with the pair of oxen we owned. Each day, he and the oxen used to come back home exhausted,” she recalls. “Today, it is different, as I am privileged to farm the same land with a tractor and it takes a maximum of three hours.”

Kamso Bame is a member of the women's cooperative in her village. Photo: UN Women/Fikerte Abebe

The tractor is used to farm the land owned by the cooperative as a team, as well as each member’s own land. The cooperative also rents it out to other farmers in 26 villages across the district, whose population is more than 240,000. Charging up to 1,500 Birr (56 USD) per hectare, the cooperative currently earns over 6,000 Birr (222 USD) per day, on average.

For Tulule Knife, a 38-year-old member of a cooperative in the Adamitulu district of the Oromia region, the training sessions she received have improved her yields and provided a livelihood for her family of nine.

“My village is known for growing maize in traditional ways, which involves scattering seeds by hand all over the prepared land,” she explains. Last year, equipped with new sustainable farming techniques, Knife sowed wheat seeds, a rarity since it doesn’t yield enough grains using traditional planting methods.

“During last year’s planting season, I sowed 50 kg of improved wheat seeds using a better way of planting I learned from the training known as line sowing. I harvested 15 quintals of wheat and sold that to the community for 15,000 Birr (555 USD). With traditional planting, for the same amount of seeds and other inputs, there are times when the yield is not even a quarter of that.”

Tulule Knife uses the modern grain storage facility known as metallic silo that her village administration awarded her for successfully applying the line sowing approach to her wheat farm. It also keeps her grain safer. Photo: UN Women/Fikerte Abebe

She says that some members of her community found it so unbelievable, they accused her of witchcraft. But the village administration acknowledged her publicly, awarding her a modern grain storage facility. Knife now trains men and women farmers in these new agricultural techniques and has organized a self-help savings group of 20 members.

The impact of the program has been profound, says Alima Bakuye, chair of the Abune Gawano cooperative in Adamitulu district. “The support is a turning point in effectively empowering the women and in making it a norm that women are benefiting and owning assets equal to men. For example, children and youth in the community used to refer to assets owned by the family, such as livestock, as ‘my father’s sheep’ and ‘my father’s goats’. Today, they are saying ‘my mother’s sheep’, ‘my mother’s goats’. This leads to a long-term change as it is impacting future generations.”

According to Letty Chiwara, UN Women Representative for Ethiopia, agricultural cooperatives—especially those established by women in rural areas—play a key role in enhancing productivity through sustainable farming practices.

“Injecting basic labour and time-saving technologies, along with the relevant knowledge, to smallholder women farmers’ cooperatives are critical elements in the sustainable escalation of the value chain in agriculture. This, in turn, results in quality of life improvements for women farmers and communities at large,” she says.

Launched in the regions of Afar and Oromia in 2014, the five-year program works with 10 cooperatives, with 48 to 516 members each. Beyond the more than 2,000 direct beneficiaries, 14,000 family members and 32,000 community members are benefiting indirectly.

First from right, Alima Bakuye with some of the members inside the women cooperative’s newly established modern cattle-fattening facility through the support of the joint program. Photo: UN Women/Fikerte Abebe

The Joint Program “Accelerating Progress towards the Economic Empowerment of Rural Women” is being implemented by the Government of Ethiopia in partnership with UN Women, the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), the World Food Programme (WFP) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). The program is supported by the Government of Spain through the Sustainable Development Goals Fund (SDG-F), as well as the governments of Sweden and Norway.