Women’s Multifaceted Role in Ethiopia’s Food Value Chain
For International Women’s Day, discussions often focus on gender inequities that disadvantage women and the ways in which women are currently disempowered in agriculture and food systems. Yet, a trip to a main market in many places in Africa tells a more nuanced story: women are often essential actors in traditional food markets, where they yield considerable influence as both vendors and consumers.
Hawassa, Ethiopia, is a prime example of this. In this midsized lakeside city in Ethiopia’s Great Rift Valley, as elsewhere in Ethiopia, women tend to be responsible for purchasing food for the household. They are also the ones that usually decide what to buy, and are the ones who eventually cook it. This makes them critical nutrition and food safety influencers for the entire household.
Moreover, over 85 percent of Hawassa market vendors are women. In their role as vendors, the women of Hawassa’s main market shape the diets of the entire city’s residents: if a family sits down to new year festival celebrations to enjoy a traditional meal of buurisame, prepared from false banana, milk and butter, those foods likely were sourced from a woman. The same is true for an everyday dish, like the spinach-based gomen stew, or even a snack eaten on the way to school: women’s influence is embodied in each bite.
Selling food in the market is not easy. In the midday sun, it is sweltering; there is no adequate water and toilet service; the rainy season makes the narrow passageways nearly impassable due to mud; and a typical day will bring a vendor fewer than a dozen customers.
But the vendors of Hawassa market are resilient women. For example, Daso Andulou is still selling oil seeds from her market stall at the age of 84. “I hear people in the market jokingly calling out, ‘this granny is an iron lady,’” she laughingly explains, “and I would tease back, saying ‘well, you would never find me slacking like your lazy selves!’” In another corner of the market, Firework Fikadu has a small stand where she sells tomatoes. It’s a key achievement for her after rising from poverty and later pouring all her savings into a clothing business that was destroyed in a market fire. “It is not much … ” she admits “[but] between me and my husband, we can sustain our family; we can provide milk to our daughter.”
This sentiment, that market vending is a key source of financial independence and the ability to support one’s family, is one shared by many of Hawassa’s market women. As one female kale vendor explained, “I just really love and respect the vegetable business … I provide for my family and kids because of it. Since we have that, my kids won’t get hungry or thirsty … it really makes me happy that I’m not dependent on someone else.”
Certainly, a lot could help to improve the quality of life for Hawassa’s market women: infrastructure improvements that would limit the mud and provide more shade; training to increase their knowledge and skills around food safety, to help reduce foodborne illness; better-quality stands that would let them sit comfortably rather than squatting on the ground; and access to high-quality education and a wider range of career opportunities that would expand their options beyond food vending. But within the constraints they face, the women of Hawassa market have carved out a space of their own and forged livelihoods that both enable them to support their families and provide the city’s citizens with nutritious foods.
This blog was made possible through support provided by Feed the Future through USAID, under the terms of Agreement #7200AA19CA00010. The opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the U.S. Government.