How Female Agro-Agents Can Help Input Distributors Better Respond to Community Needs
The nature of agriculture in Mozambique, and women’s role within it, is changing. Women are increasingly entering the input distribution market system, as agro-dealers, retailers, agents, and extension workers. To understand these changes more, Feed The Future Mozambique Innovations (FTF INOVA) carried out a study in 2018. The study showed that the industry generally recognizes women as being trustworthy, hard-working, and good at dealing with clients. The study also found that by investing in female agro-agents, input distributors and retailers could effectively target the last mile, particularly female farmers who face restrictions on their mobility and time. The story of Rumbidzai Ngonhamo shows that when women are given an opportunity in the retail of inputs and supported with investment and technical knowledge, they can help input distributors grow and better respond to community needs.
Rumbidzai, a mother of four, started out in the agricultural sector working with her husband, a large-scale producer. When she started farming a separate plot, her husband asked her to farm vegetables for family consumption; however, she realized that in her community of Chiqueia, located in Manica District near the Zimbabwe border, no one was selling inputs. She had to travel across the border to Zimbabwe to purchase inputs of the right type and quality. As her yields grew, Rumbidzai soon started to produce onions and cabbage for commercial sale to traders from Chimoio and Beira city. Seeing the superior quality of her produce, friends and neighbors started to enquire about the source of the inputs she was using. That is when inspiration struck. In response to unmet and increasing demand for quality inputs, Rumbidzai began selling seeds and fertilizer to 30 members of her Village, Savings, and Loans Association (VSLA). She grouped orders and travelled to Zimbabwe to purchase the inputs in bulk. “[VSLA members] started by ordering 3 packages of 10 grams, but with time, the orders increased,” says Rumbidzai.
Rumbidzai received support from a number of donors and NGOs, and as her business grew she began working with Klein Karoo (K2), a local input manufacturer. Recognizing the potential for growth, K2 supported Rumbidzai to establish demo plots, and Rumbidzai became an official sales agent. K2 went further and started to provide Rumbidzai with inputs on credit to make sure products were always in stock for farmers. She also expanded her product range to include seeds from other manufacturers (Pannar, Terragro) and a distributor (Casa do Agricultor), as well as farm equipment (hoes and machetes) and pesticides.
FTF INOVA recognized the need to help entrepreneurs like Rumbidzai to continue to grow and worked with K2, as well as a number of other input distributors, to develop a Village Based Agent (VBA) model where agro-dealers employ local staff to expand their sales into the hardest to reach areas. Now, with the support of FTF INOVA, Rumbidzai’s business is posed for further growth. In 2019, with support from FTF INOVA and K2, Rumbidzai trained four of her own VBAs, three of them female, on the new pull-distribution system. With her growth, she is also helping other female VBAs to improve their household resilience by adding another source of income and expanding their investment options. The pull distribution system is a delivery infrastructure that connects manufacturers, distributors, and retailers to bring volumes of inputs all the way down to smallholder farmers (SHFs) in a cost-effective and efficient way, thereby shifting the financial burden of stocking from retailers to wholesalers.
The VBA model offers a number of benefits to female farmers and agro-agents and their communities:
- It enables female farmers, who face additional constraints around time and mobility, to access inputs and information on correct input use and application directly in their communities through VBAs;
- It lowers the barriers to entry for female input retailers or agro-agents, who face constraints around access to capital, as it allows them to purchase inputs directly tied to customer orders rather than holding stock in their store; and
- It allows input distributors to continue delivering inputs to farmers despite the COVID-19 crisis and restrictions on movement, while limiting the risk of virus transmission and keeping remote communities safe and healthy.
The new system is already showing a lot of promise; her sales have increased by 50%. The most active of Rumbidzai’s VBAs orders an average of 20kg of inputs per month in high season. With the VBAs leading on sales and delivery directly in her community, Rumbidzai now has time to focus on further business expansion. With the growth prospects brought by the VBA model, Rumbidzai has now decided to build a small shop, the only one in her community. With the trust that she earned, K2 supported her with shop painting as well as increased credit on inputs and with the business registration process. “She is the strongest agro-dealer I work with in Manica and Sussundega districts, and she contributes to reduce travel distance and prices for community members to purchase quality inputs that generate higher returns,” says Loteia Manze, K2’s Technical Field Officer. Alongside K2’s support, her husband’s help has been instrumental, both in terms of helping her finance the shop when she faces liquidity issues and assisting her with transportation of inputs from the main road to her shop.
With the VBA model being piloted by K2, Rumbidzai believes it will be easier for other women to follow in her footsteps and improve access to inputs for farmers in their communities. The VBA model allows women to start trading immediately without investing in costly stock, and it provides them with exposure to business management and sales skills they otherwise would not have access to. Input distributors are also incentivized to invest in the capacity and growth of the VBAs based on individual performance rather than unconscious bias that might lead them to prioritize male agents over female ones. And with role models like Rumbidzai and her husband, more women should soon be ready to follow in her footsteps.