Scaling Mechanization in a Gender-Responsive Manner in Bangladesh
Women smallholder farmers are key actors in the food system and are essential to a farming household’s agricultural productivity, food security and nutrition. Yet, they face significant challenges in accessing resources such as land, financial credit, information, inputs and technology. Agricultural technologies and sustainable mechanization can help reduce women smallholder farmers’ time and labor burden while increasing farm productivity and building resilience. However, the reality is that most agricultural innovations, technologies and machinery do not cater to the needs or preferences of women and are primarily designed for middle-income male farmers, leaving behind both women and men smallholder farmers.
Rural Bangladesh presents a unique context in which women smallholder farmers face social and cultural constraints that restrict their physical mobility beyond their communities. Consequently, their access to agricultural innovations, marketing engagement and participation in paid work outside the homestead is limited. In parallel, Bangladesh’s agricultural sector is increasingly becoming “feminized” as men migrate to urban centers for employment. This trend has led to a significant surge in female participation in agriculture, surpassing 50 percent.
While the adoption of mechanization in Bangladesh is rapidly increasing, women smallholder farmers face socio-cultural constraints that can make operating machines difficult. Additionally, both women and men smallholder farmers face challenges in formal ownership of machinery since it requires significant capital investment, even with government subsidies. While custom service providers (fee-for-service) have made agricultural mechanization more accessible to smallholder farmers, machinery service providers are predominantly men, which makes it difficult for women to learn about the service and access service providers.
As part of the Appropriate Scale Mechanization Consortium, funded by the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Sustainable Intensification, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Bangladesh Agricultural University (BAU) have partnered to better understand the gendered dynamics of agricultural machinery adoption. Our goal is to determine how to best scale agricultural mechanization in conservative socio-cultural settings in a gender-responsive manner. A recent field study in Barisal division revealed three key lessons for scaling: pivot how we think about adoption, equip male mechanization service providers to reach women farmers, develop sustainable business models for group ownership of mechanization.
Pivot How We Think About Adoption
Traditional gender mainstreaming in agricultural mechanization has predominantly targeted women as “users” of technology. This approach is built on women operating agricultural machines, such as tractors or combine harvesters, and focuses efforts on adapting the technology’s design. While gender-sensitive design with agricultural equipment is important and can benefit men too, it might not be the most effective solution in the context of Bangladesh. Interviews and focus groups with women leaders in farmer cooperatives in the Barisal division revealed that women recognized the value of mechanization, but few were interested in owning or operating machines due to social and cultural constraints.
Taking inspiration from IFPRI’s Reach, Benefit and Empower framework, we have pivoted our focus from women as direct “users” where adoption is the end goal to women as “customers” who can benefit from mechanization without requiring formal ownership or operation. Viewing women as customers enables programs to pivot focus and limited funds from efforts that are geared towards encouraging women’s adoption of machines and instead focus on addressing gender disparities in access to machinery. This can in turn ensure that interventions lead to improvements in women’s lives such as reduced time and labor burdens and increased household incomes.
Equip Male Mechanization Service Providers to Reach Women Farmers
In Bangladesh, medium and large landholding male farmers own large equipment like combine harvesters. They use the machines for their own farms and provide custom services to customers in their own communities or other nearby areas. Most recently, BAU has focused efforts on establishing a single-shed service provider model that offers all-in-one mechanization services to farmers to further scale agricultural mechanization efforts in the country. BAU provides these service providers basic training in machinery operation and maintenance, troubleshooting assistance and information on procuring government subsidies.
Interviews with service providers showed that they serve a low number of women farmers highlighting a gender gap in access to mechanization services. In cases where women farmers were served, we learned that women often approached the spouse of the service provider to request mechanization services either in person or over the phone. Spouses also assisted in taking customer requests while their husbands were not present and managed financial transactions. Additionally, we discovered that male service providers had a positive view of women customers stating that women paid for mechanization services on time.
To ensure that more women can benefit from mechanization services offered, we need to intentionally educate service providers on how addressing gender barriers can create new business opportunities. Moreover, it is essential to encourage further engagement from service providers’ spouses in advertising services to other women and engaging them as new clients. Including spouses in training on business management and advertising can positively impact women’s confidence and ensure mechanization services are accessed by more women.
Develop Sustainable Business Models for Group Ownership of Mechanization
The crucial role of well-functioning Farmer Producer Organizations (FPOs) and other collective forms in empowering women smallholder farmers is widely recognized. FPOs enable women's access to subsidized input, information, credit and better market opportunities. Female leaders of well-functioning farmer groups in Bangladesh challenge social norms, empower other women, and extend their operations beyond agriculture to offer services, including public health, digital education and linkages with local markets. FPOs that cater to women members can fill the gap in women’s access to mechanization services by custom service providers.
Interviews with FPOs that owned select agricultural machinery and provided mechanization rental services for their members revealed gaps in their group ownership model. FPO members access mechanization services by paying the hired male operator for his labor and for the fuel used. Non-members in the community who accessed the FPO’s mechanization services were charged slightly higher rates. We found that most FPOs interviewed were heavily reliant on access to free machines from various government or donor initiatives and did not have the funds or business acumen to purchase better equipment. In fact, one group leader mentioned that even if they accessed the Government of Bangladesh’s subsidies (50–70 percent based on machine and region), the groups did have the capital to purchase better equipment. This reliance on external support makes FPO mechanization service provision business models unsustainable in the long term, hindering investment in better equipment to benefit the group’s members.
To scale women’s access to mechanization through FPOs, it is important to provide group leaders with training in basic entrepreneurship skills. In partnership with the ADM Institute for Prevention of Postharvest Loss experts in entrepreneurship education from the University of Illinois and BAU will pilot participatory entrepreneurial training with group leaders. With funding from ADM Cares, the trainings will focus on assisting FPOs to develop sustainable business models that enable the groups to invest in mechanization that will benefit their member’s and ensure long-term viability of their operations.
In conclusion, the feminization or expansion of women’s participation in agriculture in constrained contexts like Bangladesh creates opportunities for promoting women’s equity. Agricultural mechanization can benefit women smallholder farmers tremendously and act as a catalyst to improve their lives, build resilience and overcome poverty. It is critical that every discussion on scaling agricultural technologies should intentionally consider how women smallholder farmers will access and benefit from them. Moreover, it is equally important that the approaches we use to ensure women can benefit from mechanization are not only cognizant of contextual socio-cultural beliefs and practices, but creatively work with them in the interim.
Maria Jones is the Associate Director of the ADM Institute for the Prevention of Postharvest Loss at the University of Illinois and is the Technical Lead for Gender Integration with the Appropriate Scale Mechanization Consortium, part of the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Sustainable Intensification.
Dr. Samantha Lindgren is an assistant professor of Sustainability Education in the College of Education at the University of Illinois College of Education. She is an affiliated faculty member in the department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering, in the College of ACES and the Technology Entrepreneurship Center in the Grainger College of Engineering, as well as, and the Women and Gender in Global Perspectives program.
Ghaida S. Alrawashdeh is a Prevention of Postharvest Loss Scholar at ADMI. Her research interests explore the intersection of technology and social impact. Specifically, she is interested in exploring the potential of smart technologies to promote more sustainable entrepreneurship models.
Dr. Lavlu Mozumdar is a Professor of Rural Sociology at Bangladesh Agricultural University. He works as a gender and youth engagement specialist of the project ‘Appropriate Scale Mechanization Innovation Hub Bangladesh Phase II’ funded by USAID. His research interest extends to women’s and youths’ agro-innovation and agro-entrepreneurship in less-developed and developing countries.
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