Developing countries in Asia and the Pacific account for more than half of the world's population, with the overwhelming majority of people in the region depending on agriculture and related activities for their livelihood and income. Home also to two-thirds of the world's 800 million hungry people, most of them in rural areas, Asian developing countries face major challenges to increasing rural incomes in order to speed up national progress towards the 1996 World Food Summit (WFS) goal of reducing hunger levels by half by the year 2015.
A growing population and environmental degradation are putting severe stress on natural farm productive resources, compelling more and more rural people to turn to non-agricultural activities for supplementary income and, in a growing number of cases, for alternative livelihood. Moreover, the forces of globalization are increasingly exposing small-scale Asian farmers, a majority of them women, to market conditions for which they are poorly prepared.
The new challenges will demand major adaptation of existing small-scale farming systems through means such as diversification, value-addition, non- farm production and improved marketing. It is necessary to promote viable off-farm enterprises, based on local resources and processing of agricultural and other products. The resulting transformation in the nature of small-scale agriculture demands that small farmers organize themselves into group and cooperative-based size rural enterprises. Increasingly, there will be a demand for higher levels of farm and/or rural business planning and management skills.
In order to transform themselves into successful rural entrepreneurs, small farmers need improved access to essential social services such as basic health care and education, safe drinking water and electricity, as well as a widening range of support services including credit, product and market information, technology, management skills and training in enterprise development.
However, major challenges have to be met, particularly for women farmers who are among the poorest and most food insecure but have much potential to improve their livelihoods through better management of productive resources. There is a pressing need for policies and programmes which provide equitable access to productive resources and services to rural women, strengthening their capacities to manage rural enterprises. In view of persisting cultural, social, economic and political constraints, it is necessary to ensure that such policies and programmes are better targeted in order to empower rural women as entrepreneurs.
Agricultural cooperatives provide an equitable form of enterprise development in rural areas which is most suitable for rural women. Therefore, support to agricultural cooperatives as member-controlled, community-level rural enterprises will provide the right conditions for improving the livelihood of rural women as entrepreneurs.
Over the past decade, the Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations has been promoting agricultural cooperative development through a regional network known as the Network for the Development of Agricultural Cooperatives in Asia and the Pacific (NEDAC). This is a platform for policy dialogue and sharing of experiences in agricultural cooperative enterprise development (ACED) among Asian member countries. It has provided new opportunities to member countries to benefit from FAO's technical expertise through pilot projects on ACED.
Promoting rural women's cooperative businesses in Thailand: a training kit is an outcome of an FAO Technical Cooperation Programme (TCP) Project, Capacity Building for Promotion of Cooperative Small Farmer and Women Group Activities (TCP/THA/0165). Under the project, FAO collaborated with the Cooperative Promotion Department (CPD) of the Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives of the Government of Thailand in enhancing the CPD's capacities for appropriate training of their trainers at provincial and local levels for the promotion of cooperative business activities for small farmers and rural women. The project contributed to food security by improving the self-help capacities and livelihood opportunities for small farmers, in particular women.
The FAO TCP project assisted in strengthening and building the in-house training capacity of the CPD in five regional training centres in central, northern, northeastern, eastern and southern Thailand. Training of trainers and field demonstration activities were conducted in the five regions and a comprehensive cooperative training strategy was adapted to different local conditions for capacity-building of rural women as successful cooperative entrepreneurs, making use of FAO's agricultural cooperative development experience in the region.
The FAO training kit on rural women's cooperative enterprises focuses on developing entrepreneurial skills and attitudes among women farmers. The kit was developed by two gender micro-enterprise development experts from the Indian non-governmental organization Sampark in collaboration with the Rural Development Officer in the FAO regional office. The training manual was field-tested in collaboration with senior managers and staff of the CPD training division in Bangkok, regional training centres, provincial mobile teams and with leaders and members of rural women's enterprise groups.
The CPD and other government agencies are using the FAO training-of-trainers approach in promoting the government's One Tambon, One Product policy - a major national programme for rural poverty alleviation through village enterprise development. This training manual has also been translated into Thai and has become part of the CPD training curricula.
Assistant Director-General and
FAO Regional Representative for Asia and the Pacific