Lauren Shields, Associate, HERproject, and Chloё Poynton, Manager, Advisory Services

Last year, with support from the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, BSR’s HERproject conducted a study of East Africa’s agriculture export sectors to understand the role women play in these industries and to assess the need for workplace-based programs focused on women’s health and empowerment. We conducted on-the ground research in Ethiopia, Rwanda, and Uganda, and reviewed findings from the HERproject pilot program in horticulture farms in Kenya.

Our new report, “Working Women and Health in East Africa’s Agriculture Sector,” which launches today, includes three major findings:

  • Women, who play a major part in the workforce in export-oriented agriculture sectors across Africa, face critical unmet health needs. In Ethiopia, women represent between 70 and 80 percent of workers in horticulture and coffee. One study in Ethiopia found that 26 percent of married women reported an unmet need for family planning, indicating that unwanted pregnancies are common. One farm nurse estimated that annual turnover rates for the approximately 500 farm workers are between 10 and 20 percent, many due to unwanted pregnancies and infections related to traditional medicine used to abort those pregnancies.
  • Global sourcing practices in the sectors observed result in limited oversight over working conditions. Within the sectors observed, we found common practice was to export through regional and international auctions, limiting direct engagement with farms and factories. These circumstances result in limited oversight and transparency over working conditions and other compliance issues; they also reduce the potential for innovative collaborations to improve well-being and contribute to the communitywide benefits that may result from employment.
  • Workplace health interventions have proven successful. Following the pilot phase of a HERproject program in Kenya, two farms tracked improvements in workers’ health knowledge and behavior on indicators including familiarity with family-planning methods, the ability of women to self-perform breast examinations, the use of ergonomic methods to reduce back pain, and access to and awareness of health services.

We believe companies with operations or supply chains in East Africa will benefit from reviewing this research. In particular, we believe this information will help global businesses provide more support for ethical labor practices and transparent supply chains that ensure decent, safe working conditions. We hope local businesses will read this material and follow equal-employment practices and promote gender diversity, equal pay for equal work, and workplaces that are free of harassment and discrimination.

Both global and local businesses have an opportunity to collaborate to provide additional benefits to meet female employees’ unique needs, including benefits that support their general and reproductive health. And civil society organizations and governments have an opportunity to partner with businesses to help them employ women fairly, and to foster workplace environments that support women’s empowerment and help improve gender equality and reduce poverty.

Given these opportunities, BSR expanded HERproject workplace-based programs on health and women’s empowerment from Kenya to Ethiopia in 2014, and we plan to grow in the region in 2015. Other business leaders and partners can support women’s empowerment in East Africa’s agriculture sector by investing in these programs.