Empowering women and youth are a must to transform Africa’s food systems

Core message

"Dairy empowers women. A woman who has a cow is an empowered woman!" Dairy farmer Margaret Munene.

African livestock systems are incredibly diverse and complex, so comprehensive and inclusive development solutions for the sector are the only way to sustainably transform food systems. Women and youth have a critical role to play in African food systems, contributing to these solutions that will overcome challenges to food security, nutrition, employment, economic growth and climate adaptation. 

At Africa's Food Systems Forum (AGRF) 2023 Summit, the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) partnered with Heifer International, the Global Dairy Platform and Land O'Lakes Venture 37 to host the side event, ‘Herding change: sustainable livestock innovation by women and youth.' Aligning with the Government of Tanzania's priorities to empower women and youth in food system transformation along this year's summit theme, ‘Recover, regenerate, act: Africa’s solutions to food systems transformation,’ this session brought together four fantastically driven women—Margaret Munene, Jemimah Wanjiku, Paulina Kilindi and Elizabeth Swai—with incredible stories about the transformative power of livestock enterprises. These women strongly advocated for increased financing and entrepreneurial mentorship to support women and young people transform Africa’s livestock sector. 


Livestock opportunities are egalitarian 

The ownership of livestock is much more egalitarian than the ownership of land. Margaret Munene’s story exemplified this truth. She started with one cow to provide milk to her children, and quickly realised her side business of selling her milk surplus could pay more than her job as a research scientist. Today she is managing director at Palm House Dairies, which supports more than 400 dairy farmers. Munene summarised how one cow helped her become a women entrepreneur.

"Dairy empowers women. A woman who has a cow is an empowered woman!" 


Access to technology and opportunity 

Jemimah Wanjiku, co-founder of DigiCow Africa, shared how digitisation helped tackle low livestock productivity and close the digital divide that further marginalises women and youth. The DigiCow Dairy app collects data from farmers and packages it so farmers can understand and improve their dairy productivity. Young people can earn an income by using the app to train farmers. Wanjiku explained how digitisation can empower women and youth to help transform the dairy sector.

"Data is queen! Digitisation will open opportunities for collaborations with farmers, financial credibility and earning an income for women and youth." 

Livestock sector transformation needs to ensure that women and youth are empowered and get access to digitisation technology through mentorship. Paulina Kilindi, youth champion from Singinda, Tanzania, shared how she uses mentorship to empower her community with poultry keeping. Kilindi is a role model, becoming a pillar for other young people and women in her community to learn entrepreneurship and poultry farming. She uses small group coaching to encourage male spouses to support women in poultry keeping, empowering women to embrace business opportunities. 

William Matovu, Uganda country director at Heifer International called the room to action.

"Empower woman and empower young people to take forward climate-smart innovations for livestock and enable resilient smallholder ecosystems!" 


Speaker panel at AGRF 2023 Herding Change side event
Speaker panel at AGRF 2023 Herding Change side event (ILRI / Shahida Hussein). 


Breaking the 'glass ceiling’ for financing 

To empower women and youth entrepreneurs in the livestock sector, we need to challenge and transform negative gender norms that prevent marginalised groups from funding their businesses. Elizabeth Swai, CEO of AKM Glitters, called to policymakers in the room to improve women’s access to finance. Swai’s company grew from rearing 250 chickens in 2004 to becoming the only certified producer of Kuroiler chicken in Tanzania, with 3 million chicks hatching each year. However, despite having sound business proposals, in the last 15 years Swai could only access loans twice. Swai pointed out that teaching women the language of investors and insurers to understand finances is not enough. There needs to be a major shift in gender and societal norms to support women in business development.  

Looking forward 

Munene, Wanjiku, Kilindi and Swai are proof that women and youth livestock keepers empowered with digitisation and mentorship can improve nutrition and livelihoods in Africa. However, the livestock sector’s contribution to food systems transformation will remain severely stalled as long as systematic bias prevents women and youth from participating in agribusiness. In the future, government stakeholders need to implement policies that create an enabling environment for women and youth inclusion. Increasing their access to finance will enable the scaling of business and uptake of new climate-smart technologies.