Feed the Future
This project is part of the U.S. Government's global hunger and food security initiative.

Empowering Women Through Soy: An Interview with SIL Director Pete Goldsmith

This interview is part of an Agrilinks series showcasing the work of the Feed the Future Innovation Labs. The Innovation Labs use collaborative research to develop and scale sustainable technologies to feed a growing population with nutritious, safe foods. These labs form a network of more than 70 U.S. colleges and universities working with developing country partners to pioneer solutions that boost productivity, combat emerging threats and benefit farmers and food producers both at home and abroad. 

As part of Agrilinks’ focus on gender and agriculture this month, this interview with Pete Goldsmith, Director of the Soybean Innovation Lab (SIL), looks at how the SIL is furthering women’s economic empowerment through the mighty soybean.

How is your Lab’s research working to empower women in agriculture?

Soybean is a non-native, non-staple commercial crop and new to many African farmers. Starting out as a Lab, our hypothesis was that soy could have a significant impact on rural economies, and USAID wanted to better understand its application among smallholders in sub-Saharan Africa. We also saw the potential for soy to empower rural women, so this question was really in our DNA from the beginning.

We take a multidisciplinary approach to these issues, as evidenced by our team, which includes economists, anthropologists and a gender specialist. Our social science team is specifically investigating gender issues, using USAID’s Women's Empowerment in Agriculture Index (WEAI) to identify gender constraints in soybean adoption in Ghana and Mozambique. It’s critical that women have access to the inputs, markets and technical knowledge they need to be successful with soy.

We have been partnering with an organization working in northern Ghana with 20,000 female soy farmers. We are conducting research on women’s role in the value chain in the region, how to sustain adoption of soy as a crop and the bottlenecks they face. The upshot is labor is scarce, and soybean is conventionally hand-planted and hand-threshed, so the labor typically falls to women, who are already overburdened. So one of our leads in mechanization, Dr. Kerry Clark at the University of Missouri, developed a multipurpose thresher, which circumvents the high labor demands of threshing.

Often we run into equipment graveyards, where mechanization equipment is introduced but quickly falls out of use as there aren’t service and parts available. Dr. Clark developed a locally made, serviced and operated thresher, which can be produced and sold at a low enough cost to be in reach of smallholders. These threshers are a potential game changer, as they not only relieve women of the labor but also allow them to produce and earn more as post-harvest losses are reduced, and grain quality is improved.

When entering into a new commercial crop like soy, you are going to have social and normative disruptions, and frankly we have yet to determine all the implications for the crop and gender dynamics. If women control the crop, do the profits go to their husbands, for example? These questions have yet to be properly studied.

Another dimension is soy’s nutritive value, as it is packed with protein. We are training local staff on ways to incorporate it into traditional cuisines in our focus countries. Women’s role in that is key.

What do you think the research community needs to focus on next in this space? 

We are thinking about three things for the next phase. We need to improve the seed supply, which is a huge problem at the moment. We have implemented Pan-African Soybean Trials to fast-track high volumes of high-quality seed into countries, working with a consortium of partners including IITA, African Agricultural Technology Foundation and the Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture.

Secondly, agronomic management in the tropics is really important. In northern Ghana, from 2012 to the present, the price of soy has only averaged 4 percent below the price for it in Chicago. The demand is very strong, in large part driven by poultry demand. There is a huge opportunity for rural farmers to supply this demand, but only if yields improve. Soy is not a crop that African farmers are very familiar with, and traditional practices don’t apply to soy very well.

Thirdly, many of the technical organizations we are collaborating with have very poor internet connectivity, which impedes their progress in so many ways. It is a fight, day in and out. We hope that USAID will double down in investing in rural infrastructure needed to get them connected.

How can the Agrilinks community of researchers and implementers benefit from/connect with what you’re doing? 

The Innovation Lab is cross-cutting by design; we have 35 U.S. researchers directly collaborating with partners overseas. However we really only work in the background and through partnerships; we don’t issue RFPs or unilaterally engage in research. However, through those partnerships, we’ve really been able to expand our footprint and multiply our impact. We started in five countries — Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia, Ghana and Ethiopia, some of the key soy-producing countries — and have now expanded into 16 countries.

We invite the community to learn more about our work at our website. We have a number of technical resources we’ve developed to help others working with soy in the development context, including extension tools, disease diagnostic guides, recipes, training courses and more.