Why We Need Formative Approaches When Measuring Women's Empowerment in Agricultural Market Systems
Many Feed the Future implementers work alongside agricultural enterprises in their activities. These activities engage both men and women as either enterprise owners or workers in beyond production roles (e.g., agro-processing, retail, trade, input, financial service provision, and transport and logistics). However, despite their potential impact on women’s empowerment, little is known about the gendered dimensions of these beyond production efforts. This is because most Feed the Future activities often lack effective strategies to capture, track and measure the gendered impacts of interventions focused on beyond production roles.
To demystify the complexity of identifying and assessing empowerment outcomes and generating evidence on women’s empowerment in beyond production roles, the Feed the Future Advancing Women’s Empowerment (AWE) program conducted an impact assessment of a specific Feed the Future Activity. AWE used a formative research approach that focuses on evaluation to improve development or implementation of a program before its conclusion. In this post, we explore why formative research is a simple yet effective approach to explore empowerment gains for women engaged in agri-enterprises within market systems and how it can be used to help strengthen development interventions.
In 2020, AWE conducted a gendered landscape analysis on the nature, scope and scale of women’s empowerment in beyond production agriculture interventions, and how their outcomes are monitored, analyzed and reported. The assessment found that, besides the project-level Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index for Market Inclusion (pro-WEAI+MI), which includes complimentary indicators to investigate barriers to market access and inclusion for different value chain actors, the evidence on and tools and measurement approaches for assessing the empowerment outcomes for women engaged in beyond production interventions is lacking.
In response, AWE used the Feed the Future Malawi Agricultural Diversification (AgDiv) Activity’s soy kit intervention as a case study to assess the impact of a beyond production agriculture intervention on women’s empowerment. Through this intervention, AgDiv supports women in establishing agri-micro enterprises focused on processing raw soybeans into soymilk by facilitating access to required resources. Due to the lack of tried-and-tested measurement approaches that specifically explore women’s empowerment outcomes in agricultural market systems interventions, the AWE team piloted the use of a qualitative, formative research approach.
Formative Research in Practice: How to Measure Women’s Empowerment in Beyond Production Agriculture Interventions
To effectively use formative research to capture empowerment gains for women engaged in agricultural market system functions beyond production, these three key steps are critical:
Step 1: Work with the project team to identify potential context-specific empowerment outcomes or agency variables that activities or interventions intend to shift. One framework that can be used to complete this exercise is the Gender Integration Framework (GIF). AWE used this framework to identify and define intended empowerment outcomes for women across the GIF’s agency domains: decision-making over agricultural areas, access and control over resources, control over income, time use and leadership and social capital.
Step 2: Use a participatory research method (e.g., participatory ranking methodology (PRM)) to refine and prioritize empowerment outcomes and set thresholds or targets. This step’s objective is to define likely empowerment gains for women — as defined by them — when they participate in a given intervention.
Step 3: Use quantitative and/or qualitative methods to quantify or estimate the extent to which women have experienced the identified empowerment outcomes and their potential impacts. AWE relied primarily on qualitative research approaches for this.
Key Lessons in Using Formative Research to Measure Women’s Empowerment in Beyond Production Agriculture Activities
Using a formative research approach, as described above, can be particularly effective in assessing empowerment gains for women engaged in agri-enterprises within market systems. Throughout this assessment, lessons learned emerged that underline the relevance and effectiveness of this specific approach. More specifically, this approach is especially useful as it can:
Be undertaken quickly and with limited resources while providing enough rigor to capture empowerment outcomes for women. The recently developed pro-WEAI+MI is a particularly useful tool to capture how women’s participation in various nodes of agricultural value chains affects their empowerment. Despite its many advantages, using this measurement tool requires specific expertise, time and sufficient resources to survey a large enough sample of respondents. Thus, the pro-WEAI+MI may be more appropriate as part of baseline and endline data collection efforts, enabling implementation teams to quantify beneficiaries’ level of empowerment before and after beyond production interventions. A formative assessment provides an easy-to-implement alternative that can be used to assess interventions’ progress toward meeting empowerment outcomes for those involved in a range of agricultural market functions, at various points throughout implementation.
Provide the flexibility needed to align empowerment measurements with beneficiaries’ personal sense of empowerment. A consistent message in the literature on measuring empowerment is that culture and context matter. As such, score-based empowerment indices based on etic dimensions of empowerment may not capture shifts in empowerment that are culturally or contextually relevant. In contrast, formative research constructs empowerment definitions across key domains that reflect women’s understanding of empowerment. AWE employed a participatory approach to constructing empowerment measures across the five agency domains of the GIF, yielding definitions grounded in the local context, especially as it related to agricultural economic activities. For example, entrepreneurs that participated in the AgDiv beyond production intervention saw themselves as empowered when able to dedicate more time to their agri-enterprise by shifting their agricultural production responsibilities to casual laborers, hired using income generated through their soymilk business. In this case, greater time-use agency and control over their own income were important measures of empowerment.
Explore empowerment gains across multiple sub-systems. Current empowerment measurement approaches significantly focus on intra-household changes in agency and decision-making. Albeit important, as women’s presence in sub-systems expands beyond the household, shifts in empowerment within new systems also need to be explored. Using formative research enabled AWE to identify potential empowerment outcomes in new systems — including the workplace and markets — then capture empowerment gains for entrepreneurs in these areas. AWE assessed shifts in agency within the workplace by exploring the division of labor and responsibilities within the soymilk enterprise and women’s decision-making power over key business-related investments and expenditure. This proved especially relevant given that soymilk businesses are often managed as a family business. The research further investigated entrepreneurs’ level of empowerment in markets, specifically their ability to negotiate prices and engage with a wide range of customers.
Capture not only the what but also the why to better understand the drivers and inhibitors underlying agri-enterprise related empowerment outcomes. Using formative research can assist with measuring progress toward empowerment outcomes while unearthing unintended consequences, drivers and inhibitors of empowerment in beyond production programming. Understanding how factors, such as relaxing or tightening social norms, contribute to or impede empowerment gains creates opportunities for real-time learning and adaptation. Often times, rigid measures of empowerment make it difficult to observe these dynamics and adapt interventions accordingly. For example, the research found that entrepreneurs often delegated key business activities, such as purchasing raw inputs, to men because they are deemed to have better negotiation skills or because entrepreneurs do not feel confident interacting with male market actors. This underlined the importance of providing continued business training to entrepreneurs to improve their self-confidence and business capacities. Identifying key drivers and barriers helped curate tailored recommendations to improve the effectiveness of the intervention.
Assess changes in empowerment from various perspectives. Although empowerment measures largely reflect women’s own perception of their empowerment, formative research also assesses how others — beyond direct beneficiaries — experienced change. Including varying perspectives, particularly those of male household members, in a formative assessment can be useful in better understanding whether and how norms, women’s status and their relations are shifting. AWE intentionally included men in the assessment to capture their attitudes and behaviors toward women’s participation in varying market functions, as these are critical barriers and enablers of the empowerment process. This helped provide nuance to women’s disempowerment in specific domains. For example, the assessment found that although the intervention had contributed to greater financial decision-making power for women at the household level, their ability to independently make business-related decisions was often constrained by men’s lack of confidence in women’s capacity to make such decisions.
In conclusion, the use of a formative research approach to assess women’s empowerment resulting from a specific beyond production agriculture intervention can be particularly effective. It is possible for program teams to use this measurement approach during implementation to improve how interventions are carried out. The formative nature of the approach proves especially useful while still implementing for learning and generating bespoke recommendations that specifically address empowerment barriers.
Research findings from the impact assessment can be accessed in the final impact assessment report.