GFAR blog, Rural Women's Month

One empowered female agripreneur can rally an entire community.


In a new joint mentorship programme, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the International Agrifood Network (IAFN) have been supporting women agripreneurs in sub-Saharan Africa. In doing so, they have generated a remarkable ripple effect through local communities and regions.

Supporting female-led SMEs

Rural small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are the backbone of agricultural value chains in many developing countries. They provide a large share of food for lower-income households and play a key role in driving innovation and revitalizing rural economies. But many face significant barriers such as limited access to resources – including the finance needed to grow and run their business. This is particularly the case for female-led agricultural SMEs which, despite being key drivers of development, growth and prosperity, tend to face greater difficulties in accessing credit and are more vulnerable to market shocks than their male-run counterparts. 

Recognizing both the immense potential of women-led SMEs in the agrifood sector and the significant barriers many female agripreneurs face, in 2022 FAO and IAFN teamed up to launch a unique pilot programme – the FAO-IAFN Accelerator Mentorship Programme for Women-led SMEs in sub-Saharan Africa. Aimed at supporting women entrepreneurs in addressing key challenges and constraints that they face in their businesses, the programme worked with 50 women from across Africa who are engaged across the entire value chain – including production, processing, marketing and distribution, logistics and digital agriculture. 

“Selecting the 50 participants was a real challenge,” says Robynne Anderson, the Director General of IAFN. “We initially received more than 500 applications, demonstrating just how much need there is for support and mentorship in the region.” 

Accelerated mentorship 

Over six months, the programme provided multi-level support to its participants. Each woman was paired with a global business leader to receive one-on-one mentoring. On top of this, participants completed three online courses through FAO’s eLearning Academy designed to develop their business skills, and attended expert-led workshops which provided important opportunities for knowledge exchange, peer learning and networking. 

“The determination of our mentees to embrace the programme was extraordinary,” says Anderson. “More than eighty percent of them successfully completed it, even though many faced significant hurdles – be they personal, business-related or geo-political.” Take Cyclone Freddy, which hit Malawi with devastating effects in March this year – including crippling the country’s power grid. “Four of our mentees were directly impacted by it. It was not uncommon to hear that they had not had electricity for several days but were hoping that the remaining power in their power bank would get them through a workshop.” 

Even a lack of English-language skills did not stop some participants. Esther, the founder of Pella Food Garden Cooperative in South Africa’s Northern Cape, attended all of her sessions and workshops with the help of an interpreter. 

Mentees’ achievements are admirable. Six outstanding participants, for example, were sponsored to attend the World Food Forum in Rome where they made connections with potential buyers, business partners and government regulators. But their achievements also send a clear message: SMEs and women entrepreneurs need structured mentorship programmes like this, so that they can gain the skills needed to navigate complex business environments and challenges. 

As one of the programme’s mentees said: “This mentorship programme should continue for other women entrepreneurs who could benefit just like we have benefited. It is a game-changing programme for every company if you meet the right mentor, which I was fortunate to do.”

A wider impact

Analysis by FAO and IAFN has found that the success of the programme goes far beyond individual mentees. In fact, it has had a remarkable ripple effect. More than 70 percent of the SMEs represented in the programme work with farmer groups and cooperatives, linking mentees to close to half a million people in their communities and regions. “It goes to show how empowering one female agripreneur can empower an entire community,” says Anderson. 

Take Lilian of Mahwi Tech Ltd in Rwanda, who has trained over 20,000 farmers to use her innovative online platform (the M-Lima Platform) to publish and sell their commodities online to a larger market and attract buyers offering competitive prices. Or Yemisi of Psaltry International in Nigeria, who has created job opportunities for some 10,000 people – impacting over 100,000 families through earning power. 

“Programmes like this can really help us to advance diversity within agriculture and help female innovators succeed within the sector,” concludes Anderson. “It is a great example of collaboration achieving real – and wide – on-the-ground impact.” 

More information about the FAO-IAFN Accelerator Mentorship Programme for Women-led SMEs in sub-Saharan Africa is available here.

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