We're four months into the "International Year of Family Farming," and I thought it would be a good time to pause and reflect on the year's significance. The United Nations bestowed 2014 with this name in an effort to highlight the potential that farming families around the world have to eradicate hunger, preserve natural resources, and promote sustainable development. With 842 million hungry people in the world, 98 percent of whom come from developing countries, we must leave no stone unturned when it comes to finding a solution to ending world hunger. And as it turns out, one important solution lies in the hands of women.
The power of women
The World Food Programme reports that if women farmers had the same access to resources as men, the number of hungry people in the world could be reduced by up to 150 million. Now, this is an impressive stat and there's no denying that women are very powerful individuals. In the United States alone, women's participation in the labor force accounted for 57.7 percent of the working age (16 years of age and older) in 2012 and today women are leading major corporations, such as Yahoo!, IBM, and PepsiCo. Furthermore, women have traditionally been the key decision-makers in the home when it comes to food, family, health, and shelter. Empowering women in agriculture now is a vital next step to improving the livelihood of future generations.
How can women farmers make a difference? Let's take a look at the small West African nation of Sierra Leone, one of the poorest countries in the world, still suffering from the aftermath of a brutal 11-year civil war. Sierra Leone is a tough place to be a woman. With the third highest maternal mortality rate in the world, one in every eight Sierra Leonean women die during pregnancy or childbirth. Yet it is women in the rural areas of Sierra Leone who are taking matters into their own hands and actively providing for themselves and their families' health needs with help from an unlikely fruit: pineapples.
A great harvest
"Planting Pineapples, Harvesting Hope," a recently launched program led World Hope International (WHI), teaches small-holder farmer associations in rural Sierra Leone the value of their land and how to grow and harvest a profitable crop. Women especially are benefitting from the program as they learn how growing a year-round crop like pineapple provides year-round income, which in turn means year-round spending money for food, health, and education, enabling mothers to provide for their children.
In Sierra Leone, pineapples are unique among the other crops traditionally grown for two main reasons: a year-round growing season and a high-market value. These two factors work together for pineapple farmers to essentially eliminate Sierra Leone's "hungry months"—the season in between harvests in which many farming families survive on less than $1 and just one meal a day. Through "Planting Pineapples, Harvesting Hope," these farmers are connected to a direct buyer, Africa Felix Juice (AFJ), who is the first manufacturer to export significant value-added goods from Sierra Leone since the end of the war. Smallholder farmers can sell their pineapples to AFJ who will in turn use them to make pineapple juice to sell around the world. The result is a win-win for all.
Equality, investment, security
An essential value of this program is the idea that women farmers are given equal access to all tools, trainings, and agricultural outputs, ensuring they are equally as able as the men in their communities to earn income from the sale of pineapples. Because women are more likely than men to use their resources to improve the well-being of their family and community, the money women farmers earn from the pineapples is consistently invested into nutrition, education, health care, and savings. As a result, the farmer associations involved in this program—68 percent of whom are women—reap year-round food and job security from the program.
In addition to recognizing women's role in increasing food security and reducing poverty, the success of the pineapple program aligns with other major initiatives in the global fight against starvation. For example, the Obama administration has been pushing to end hunger and malnutrition in Africa through initiatives that leverage private investments in agriculture such as Feed the Future, the U.S. Government's global hunger and food security program that focuses on small farms and women, and the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, an international effort to encourage private investment in agriculture and nutrition programs.
As the year progresses, I am confident that other programs like these will be announced as the spotlight continues to shine on this unfortunate injustice. Together, let us continue to celebrate the "International Year of Family Farming" by tapping into the power of women to help fight world hunger!
Jo Anne Lyon is the current General Superintendent for the Wesleyan Church U.S.A. and the first woman to ever be elected to the position. She is also the founder of World Hope International. Jo Anne sees her original vision for WHI—"to empower the poorest of the poor around the world so they can become agents of change within their communities"—being fulfilled through WHI's pineapples program.