It’s inspiring to see a woman-led business increasing livelihoods for women farmers and employees in parts of the world that markets struggle to reach. It’s even more powerful when that business does so while having a positive impact on the environment.
At Root Capital, investing in those kinds of businesses – high-impact, gender-inclusive, focused on agriculture – is our sweet spot. We provide loans and capacity-building services to these enterprises in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, giving them the critical capital they need, but all too often cannot access, to grow their business and scale their impact.
Classic Foods, an East African food company, is one of those businesses. Run by a female director named Stella Kimemia, Classic Foods began in 2007 as a dairy processor in Kenya, a country where 80 percent of milk is produced by smallholder farmers. Today, Classic Foods buys milk from over 2,500 of these farmers – nearly three quarters of whom are women – living in the Kenyan highlands.
Under Stella’s leadership, the company’s supplier base has more than doubled in the last three years – as have revenues, payments to suppliers, and volume of milk purchased. Farmers are paid above local market price and in full upon delivery. And all Classic Foods employees are paid above the country’s minimum wage and receive benefits like health insurance.
In Africa, where women are responsible for much of the continent’s agricultural production, sustainable agriculture depends on women adopting sustainable practices. That’s why, when Classic Foods began expanding into other nutritious products like fruit juice, honey, tomato sauce, maize flour and animal feed, Stella and her team launched a comprehensive farmer training program. Their sustainable agriculture trainings, covering topics such as organic soil management and proper use of organic fertilizers, crop rotation best practices, conservation methods, and agroforestry, improve the overall performance and sustainability of farms cultivated by the company’s suppliers.
Admittedly, Classic Foods – woman led, gender inclusive, and environmentally conscious – is an exceptional business…
Too often, rural businesses lack the resources, capacity, and know-how to promote sustainable and climate-smart strategies that support farmers and local ecosystems. For women farmers, it is often even harder to access the scant resources available due to the patriarchal contexts under which many of these businesses operate. Addressing this inequity is key to breaking the cycle of poverty and environmental degradation in rural areas of the developing world.
Root Capital promotes gender equity and strengthens the economic position of women via our Women in Agriculture Initiative (WAI). Since launching the initiative in 2012, the purpose of the WAI has been to unlock the potential that many agricultural businesses have on women in agricultural value chains. We do this by providing loans and advisory services to agricultural enterprises that provide reliable economic opportunities to women, thereby allowing women to contribute, alongside their male counterparts, to growing rural prosperity. Last year, we worked with 110 gender-inclusive businesses like Classic Foods, and reached 117,000 women and their families.
We’re learning a lot from our clients about how to encourage and maximize women’s participation in sustainable agriculture. Through our recent impact studies, we’ve generally seen that our clients provide services with positive implications for environmental health (agronomic trainings, input provisions, and credit) to men and women at equal rates.
However, inequities persist, and women farmers face barriers beyond those experienced by men – specifically, lack of crop knowledge, limited literacy and education, limited time and ability to travel, and cultural norms against participation in public spaces – that often prevent them from fully benefiting from cooperatives’ services.
Rural businesses can make agronomic trainings more effective for women – by speaking in local languages, using less technical jargon, deploying women agronomists, delivering training on women’s farms, among other things. And by initiating, communicating, organizing and delivering our engagements with clients with this in mind, Root Capital is well positioned to help them do so.
To learn more about how Root Capital applies a gender lens to our work in smallholder agricultural finance, download our latest issue brief.
Catherine Gill oversees debt and philanthropy fundraising efforts at Root Capital as well as human resources and information technology. Previously, Catherine served as director for the Capital Partners division of the Nonprofit Finance Fund and as site director for the agency’s New England region. She has also served as an adjunct professor at Boston University’s School of Management.