Finance Africa's women to enrich its farms—and watch them laugh all the way to the bank

Women are one of the best investments the world can make for global food security--and bankers and policymakers must recognise this.

THE first time I applied for a loan, it was an education.  I had been a customer at my bank in the Lake Victoria-side city of Entebbe, Uganda, for five years. 

I was a farmer, and I knew there was money to be made in pig farming.  As a veterinarian, I also knew our local farms were raising inbred pigs, which had poor genetics and did not grow well. I planned to import my first male pig from South Africa to improve the genetics on my farm.

But the bank manager refused to give me an agricultural loan. He advised me to get a non-agricultural loan, buy a car, sell it and then use the proceeds to buy what I needed. Whether it was because I was a woman, or because I was a farmer—and most farmers in my country are women—getting a loan was never even an option.

My husband and I sold our only truck to buy the pig. People in the community laughed at us—and especially at him. The pig cost us $4,000. I was lucky. My husband was very supportive, and we had other sources of income to sustain us while I built up my pig farm.  At the end of one year, I made $12,000 by selling the piglets sired by the imported boar. 

Naluyima in her work overalls tends to one of her pigs. (Photo/

This allowed me to expand my operation, and I now produce 600-720 piglets a year, earning $60,000 dollars from only a single quarter-acre of land. Now we laugh all the way to the bank.

But most small-scale African farmers, and especially women, do not have a truck they can sell. Facing a similar situation, they would be stuck. Even if they found a bank willing to give them a loan, the terms would likely be unworkable. Banks may demand collateral in the form of land, and few women have title to the land they farm. In addition, loan interest rates are often 20% or higher. Even if one succeeds in getting the loan, she is expected to start paying it back after a month—before her crop or livestock are ready to sell.

Banks have the cash
Yet, African banks have capital resources. Moody’s Investors Service recently reported that banks’ assets in sub-Saharan Africa have risen by more than 15% annually over the past four years.  Although that growth is expected to continue, banks are far more inclined to invest in real estate, technology, communications, and energy—everything but agriculture, and in anyone but women farmers.

The exclusion takes its toll. For all our hard labour, women farmers in Africa produce less on their farms than do men—often 13-to-25%.  There are two main reasons for this. First, we do not have the same access to good land, finance, fertiliser, seeds, or agricultural training. 

Second, according to a recent World Bank study, even when women have similar access to these resources, we often benefit less from them. Because of less time spent in school, women’s literacy may be lower than men’s, and there are more demands on our time. We not only take care of the farm, but also take care of the children. We have less time for our own farming, for supervising hired labor, for attending training classes, and for working with farmer’s cooperatives.

Financing is an important first step, but for African women farmers to truly succeed they must ultimately obtain a package that includes secure rights to land; access to education; access to healthcare; to childcare; and to markets.

Women make up 60% of Africa’s labour force and own 26% of formal businesses.  If one considers the informal businesses—the millions of women who manage small farms—that proportion would be much higher. Yet only one in five women have bank accounts, and even fewer are able to access the financial services they need when they need them. The current widespread exclusion of women from finance acts as hard brakes on Africa’s development.

Awareness is changing
But awareness of this reality is growing, and earlier this summer, former South African First Lady Graça Machel and Rwanda First Lady Jeannette Kagame launched the 15th national chapter in Africa of “New Voices, New Faces,” a regional initiative that advocates for women’s inclusion in all levels of the financial sector in Africa.

The initiative highlights several measures that will improve women’s access to finance.  It calls on banks to recognise that women are better at repaying loans, and to design credit products that take into account the many informal economic activities women engage in.  It advocates for improving women’s education and exposure to business training, and for ending discriminatory laws and practices that prevent women from owning property and land.

Speaking at the conference, I knew the obstacles I faced in financing my own farming enterprise were all too commonplace. Machel’s call to women to “think and act big” challenges each of us to think outside of artificial boundaries. There is no reason to limit our mindsets to small-scale activities.  It is good to run a business, to make a profit, to create jobs for our communities.  Women farmers can grow our small enterprises into something much larger, and in the process help propel Africa toward a prosperous and food secure future.

We are one of the best investments the world can make for global food security. Bankers and policy makers need to recognise this, and start making success possible.

- Dr. Emma Naluyima is a smallholder farmer in Uganda and a private veterinarian focusing on clinical medicine and herd health. She has previously worked for the National Animal Genetic Resources Centre and Data Bank and as an officer in Entebbe in charge of a Livestock Environmental Station. She is a 2015 Aspen New Voices Fellow.

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