Building a Pipeline for Women Leaders in Benin’s Cashew Sector
This post is written by Cristina Manfre & Ella Wama.
The newly elected president of Fédération Nationale des Producteurs d'Anacarde du Bénin (FENAPAB), Benin’s national cashew farmer association, smiles broadly as she thinks about her new post. Sahadatou Atta has spent years tending to her seven hectares of cashew trees, running a number of small businesses, training farmers in her community, and serving as a local official. In some ways, her rise from successful farmer to community resource to organization leader seems like a natural progression, but it’s a rare one in Benin’s cashew sector: Sahadatou is FENAPAB’s first female president, and women are typically excluded from leadership roles.
While women perform much of the work both on the farm and in processing plants, nearly all decision-making roles in Benin’s cashew sector are held by men: just 10 percent of cooperative members are women, and women hold none of the 30 elected posts at cashew exporting and trading associations.
The exclusion of women from decision-making roles is a serious problem, with negative impacts not only for the women themselves, but for the entire cashew industry. Benin’s government has set ambitious growth targets for the sector, but they will be difficult to achieve if women are confined to overlooked and invisible roles in cashew production. Without greater inclusion, local and national organizations will lose out on the benefits of gender-balanced teams, will be less responsive to the needs of women, and will limit the potential of women to advance in the value chain and contribute to the sector’s growth.
The BeninCajù program — a partnership between the U.S. Department of Agriculture and nonprofit TechnoServe that is working to strengthen the cashew sector and improve the livelihoods of more than 35,000 people — is working with women like Sahadatou and stakeholders across the sector to change the situation and create a pipeline for women’s leadership.
Women’s leadership in farming
Women farmers are often excluded from decision-making roles starting at a local level, finding a number of obstacles to even joining a cooperative. In Benin, cooperatives require members to have legal title to land, money for membership fees, and free time away from the home to attend meetings. For women, securing these things can be a challenge. Organizations at all levels may also lack policies to promote the equal participation of women and may not have received guidance on the importance of including women in leadership teams.
BeninCajù is working to improve women’s access to cooperatives by addressing these challenges. It is providing gender-equality training to cooperatives and other organizations; encouraging these groups to include gender-related targets for training, membership, and leadership roles; and is helping them to revise their statutes to remove unnecessary barriers to entry. For example, FENAPAB has recently reduced the required minimum farm size for membership by 50 percent in order to make it easier for women to join cooperatives.
The program has also held a series of workshops with mayors from cashew-growing communities about the issue of gender and land. In the community of Kouandé, the government responded by creating policies to facilitate easier access to land for women farmers; as a result, the participation rate of women in local cooperatives nearly doubled in just one year.
Changes are not just happening locally, but at the national level, as well. Not only did Sahadatou win election as the first female president of FENAPAB, but Evelyne Omanlade, was selected to serve as the chairwoman of its supervisory board. “I hope this feat does not stop with me. I urge the women of the commune of Kétou to redouble their efforts for the development of the sector," she said.
Women’s leadership in the processing sector
A similar process is underway in the cashew processing sector. BeninCajù has worked with the private sector to expand the country’s processing capacity so that more raw cashew nuts are processed domestically rather than overseas, adding value to Benin’s economy. The expansion of this industry has the potential to create many jobs for women: the labor forces in processing facilities is overwhelmingly female, with women performing the difficult tasks of removing cashew nuts from the shell.
Just as Sahadatou and Evelyne rose to the ranks of leadership as cashew producers, Mélanie Ahoka has done the same as a cashew processor. She began work at the processing company Fludor as one of the women shelling cashews, and now she manages her old sector. That kind of progression is rare, however.
While most of the cashew processors have targets for the number of women they hire, some report that female candidates don’t have the education or experience for management roles. BeninCajù is engaging partners like Fludor to help more women enter leadership roles. For example, the project is helping to pilot an internship and apprenticeship program for women gain professional experience and assume management roles in the cashew processing sector.
A call for cooperation
Working with stakeholders across the cashew industry to promote practices that encourage the more equitable participation of women and men, from farm to processor and beyond, is vitally important for the future of the sector. For the sector to grow and help transform Benin’s economy, women must be empowered to participate in it at every level. As Sahadatou herself said, “I urge women to fight harder to create a significant boom in the sector.”
By working with producer organizations, cashew processors, and other actors, we can open up avenues for more women like Sahadatou, Evelyne, and Mélanie to advance within the sector and contribute to its growth.
Cristina Manfre is TechnoServe's global gender director and Ella Wama is the gender lead for the BeninCajù program.