Upon my arrival in Kpayaquelleh, a small village in Central Liberia, the first thing that struck me was the presence of many small shops owned by women. I soon learned that this is only one indication of the vitality of the village’s economic life, as well as the women’s spirit of initiative and entrepreneurship. As it turns out, these women also hold leadership roles in their traditional occupation: smallholder rice farming.
The gender-based division of labour is relatively rigid in Kpayaquelleh. Men clear the land, and the women take care of all other aspects of rice production, sometimes with the help of their children. This is not an unusual arrangement, but Kpayaquelleh is relatively unique because the women are in control of the management of their rice harvest. Despite this, they told me that they do consult their husbands and other household members before making important decisions about the crops.
Accountability and community engagement
The Kpayaquelleh United Women’s group was created in 2012, after their break from a less efficient P4P-sponsored group. The break allowed them to better make use of the skills and marketing opportunities they gained through P4P. In the Kpayaquelleh United Women’s group, members choose between a less expensive basic membership and a more costly one that qualifies them for more substantial benefits. This practice is intended to create a strong sense of membership, fidelity, and commitment to the group.
Members also hold board members accountable, scrutinizing them meticulously in their positions as ‘shareholders’ of the common good. During one meeting, several women questioned the rationale for the US$2 difference between WFP’s price for a 50-kilogram bag of rice and the price the organization offered to its members. The group chair responded that this difference served as the group’s aggregation fee, a decision which was made in a previous meeting. She then used the discussion as an opportunity to emphasize the importance of members taking part in all meetings in order to foster understanding of and participation in group decisions.
When the group first formed, they were able to use a community meeting centre as a temporary storage for their crops. In part, this was due to the fact that they are viewed by their community as a positive asset. Now, they are working to further strengthen their links to the community by expanding the group and bringing in more male members. Group chair Korpo Kwala told me it is important that “they [the men of the village] can understand what we are doing.”
So far, the Kpayaquelleh United Women’s group have met their contracts in a timely manner, and are even in a position to be a serious aggregator, should WFP offer them more substantial contracts.
Safety and well-being in Gbonkuma
Another impressive women’s group, the Gbonkuma Women’s Association, has been empowered through P4P not only to produce and commercialize rice, but also to create their own personal peace and protection. In a volatile post-war context, where women and girls often fall prey to gender-based violence, women frequently form groups which allow them to look out for themselves and their children in order to minimize the risks of falling victim to aggression. In this case, the women are further motivated to continue participating in the group due to P4P support for them to produce and sell rice collectively. Gbonkuma Women Association’s impressive achievements did not go unnoticed. The President of Liberia visited them twice to encourage them in their efforts.
Confidence leads to loans
Another positive example is the Gbelay-geh Women’s Structure. The group gained confidence and skills through P4P trainings, which later helped them negotiate with a commercial bank for a substantial loan. This loan was used to aggregate almost two times their initial outputs for their contract with WFP. The group has now accrued nearly $20,000 in their bank account.
“We will not stop here. Even if the P4P support were to stop, we will continue,” said the group’s chair.
Meanwhile, there are also women’s groups in Liberia that are working their way towards empowerment despite the odds. The Melekie War-Affected Women’s group is a typical example. Despite their good intentions, a lack of basic skills, such as reading, writing and effective organization continues to limit the group. These women are currently engaging with trainings and opportunities offered by P4P and partners, such as literacy training offered by UN Women. These trainings could provide them with the skills to organize themselves and work more effectively.
Ownership and communication
Unfortunately, not all women’s groups use P4P’s assistance to walk the extra mile toward economic empowerment. For instance, with the support of Irish funds, WFP provided the Salaye Rural Women’s group with a community grain reserve, equipped by FAO to process and store rice. When I visited the group, it was disheartening to find that activity had been discontinued because of a relatively minor technical problem. Upon our arrival, it was clear that the group’s chair was under the impression that we were there to repair the broken machine. After we explained to her that it was their responsibility to maintain the equipment, she immediately decided to have it repaired that same day.
Some final reflections
My experiences during this visit convinced me that the P4P approach is generating positive and empowering results in the lives of low-income smallholder farmers in Liberia, particularly those of women. I observed the way in which links to quality market opportunities can be of major assistance to household members. Plus, I saw how skill-building can create resilience and sustainability in communities, generating benefits beyond our initial expectations.
Most importantly, I observed that interventions such as these are most successful when participants feel ownership over the project and are able to make it fit their own personal needs. I also found that the project can fall short when participants don’t feel a personal and creative engagement with it. However, this problem can be addressed through increased communication and the use of practices such as cost sharing which increase a sense of individual and community ownership of the programme and its benefits.
Blog post by Batamaka Somé, P4P gender consultant
Note: These views are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of WFP.