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Posted June 1996

Empowering Zambian rural women through small farmer groups

by John Rouse
Senior Officer
Rural Institutions and Participation Service (SDAR)
FAO Rural Development Division
See also Special: Participation in practice - Lessons from the FAO People's Participation Programme


The FAO People's Participation Programme (PPP) has long regarded its project in Zambia is its most successful in Africa. Yet we had never taken an in-depth look at why that seemed to be so. Then, late last year, Ms. Jean Geran, a graduate student in Natural Resource Management from Michigan State University, USA, expressed interest in conducting her Masters thesis field research on the Zambia project. We were able to put together a joint research agreement with her university, financed by FAO, for her to carry out the investigation.

Ms. Geran arrived in Mongu, Zambia, where this Netherland's Trust Fund project is headquartered, in September, 1995 and remained there until December of the same year. During these three and a half months, she travel widely throughout the extensive project area, which covers all six of the districts of Western Province, and visited an impressive number of PPP groups and inter-group associations. Her findings are therefore based on observations gathered over a much longer time period than previous evaluations, and therefore give more grounds for confidence.

We are encouraged by the generally positive findings of the study and hope that they will provide some "outsider" insights into the positive contributions that farmer group development projects such as this are making in improving the delivery of needed services to marginalized rural people and, by so doing, in helping to achieve sustainable rural development objectives.

Project background

Zambia's People's Participation Project began in 1983. It is implemented by the Zambian Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries (MAFF) and executed by FAO with financing from the Government of the Netherlands.

The project works in all six districts of Western Province and has helped create a total of 230 small farmer groups. The total number of direct beneficiaries is 2,550 making 11 members the average group size. Of all participating group members, 73 percent are female and 27 percent male. There are 15 functioning Action Area Committees (AACs or inter-group associations) throughout the Province. The project uses locally recruited group promoters (or GPs) to facilitate the formation and development of groups in each sub-district action area. The project covers 32 action areas and the total number of GPs is 30 - two GPs cover two action areas each. There are five District Co-ordinators who supervise the GPs.

Research focus and methodology

The focus of this research effort was on the group development process and its effect on PPP participants' access to rural services. The main data collection technique used was group interviews. About 60 groups, five Action Area Committees, 23 Group Promoters and five District Co-ordinators (DCs) were informally interviewed during the three month time frame. The interviews conducted covered 26 percent of the groups, 30 percent of the functioning AACs, 87 percent of the GPs and all of the DCs. The severe logistical and communication constraints made obtaining such a large sample of interviews in a three month time frame very challenging.

Main Findings

Group development

The broad sample of PPP groups throughout the Province provided a useful assessment of group progress in each area. What was discovered is that PPP has built a solid base of self-reliant groups in the Province. Of the 230 groups, about 70 percent, or 161 groups, could be considered self-reliant. This means that they can meet and plan activities without the assistance of a GP. This number was obtained from the GP interviews, in which they estimated the strength of the groups in their action areas. The group interviews revealed that co-operating as a group to achieve common goals was a new concept for group members. Of the 60 groups interviewed, 10 were based exclusively on extended family ties. The rest seemed to be a combination of related and unrelated people. In either case, working as a group was new, indicating a possible lack of traditional self-help groups for disadvantaged farmers in the Province. Of the group members, 73 percent are women farmers and 32 percent of those women are household heads.

Access to services

One of the goals of PPP has been to create linkages between groups and service providers in their area. Discussions revealed that group formation has indeed increased the access to various rural services for group members. Agricultural extension is one of the services most effected by the PPP approach. Of the 59 groups interviewed, 39 work directly with the extension service. Of those 39 groups, 26 said that visits from agricultural extension agents had increased since forming their PPP group. Eleven groups had never been visited by an extensionist before forming their PPP group. Other services, such as health, literacy and agricultural training, are also being provided to PPP group members.

The increased access to services is especially apparent for female group members who were rarely receiving services before. A study done in one District of the Province found that approximately 80 percent of all female headed households had never seen an extension agent. Women in the groups interviewed were the most likely to say that they are now receiving extension assistance for the first time. In four groups interviewed, there were different perceptions of men and women in the same group about the level of extension services. For the men in these groups, the frequency of visits had increased. The frequency had also increased for women, but mostly because they had never been visited by extension personnel before becoming part of PPP. Interviews with GPs and Extension Camp Officers also revealed that PPP has effectively bridged the gap between the traditional male bias in the extension service and women farmers. Two camp officers cited PPP as the single reason for a larger percentage of their Village Extension Groups (VEGs) now being women.

Knowledge and empowerment

Two other important benefits of group membership were identified by group members as knowledge sharing and empowerment. PPP groups are an important forum which did not exist before for sharing information among group members. Another benefit identified was the increased confidence and decision making ability of women group members. This empowerment of group members has had an effect on the community as a whole, with signs of increased civic involvement of group members and their ability to take on leadership roles for other community work.


Project management requested that field visits be used to assess the overall strength of groups in all project action areas. Tying the idea of strength closely to that of self-reliance, a very rough estimate was made of how many groups were doing well in each area. Self-reliant groups in this case are those distinguished by Group Promoters as able to meet and plan activities without GP assistance. Of the 230 groups functioning, about 70 percent of them could be considered to be doing well in this regard. Considering the fact that many of these groups were formed in the last couple of years, this 70 percent is an impressive figure.


Pooled resources of groups are especially important to members for use in times of crisis. These pooled resources constitute savings that have been mobilised during a time of hyperinflation, illsutrating the importance of such savings for group members. Approximately 5,370,000 Kwacha (US$ 5,700) in cash savings has been mobilised by PPP groups in the Province as of August 1995. This represents a 235% gross increase from November 1994 when total savings were K.1,600,000. Factoring out savings held at the AACs, average group savings is about K.19,400 (US$ 21). Access to cash for hospital fees was an important benefit of group membership mentioned by group members. Most group savings are kept outside of the formal banking system and are often re-lent to group members to finance emergency and other expenses. Thus, the project has led to a form of informal village banking which is meeting critical needs of group members and promoting local level transactions and development. The economic changes occurring in the country could make these savings increasingly important in obtaining services for groups in the future.

Savings of the groups come from varying combinations of periodic member contributions and profit from income generation and lending activities. All PPP groups are involved in some sort of income generating activities to increase their savings. All of these activities serve to bind groups together regardless of their profitability. It varies by location, but overall the income generating activities identified as most profitable by group members were those related to trading.


Jean Geran's research indicates that the most impressive accomplishment of PPP so far is the success it has achieved in promoting the participation of women in the various development initiatives in the Western Province. The impact that PPP has had by forming solid groups in which women are actively participating has increased the effectiveness of many rural services and development initiatives in the Province. Without its existence, other development programs would continue to fall into the trap of overlooking the most disadvantaged people in their target areas.

Linkages between PPP groups and service providers seem quite strong at the group and provincial level. Where linkages could be strengthened is in each District. Input supply is currently a pressing problem for many group members and linkages with suppliers need exploring at the district level. Things are changing in Zambia, with cutbacks in public provision of various services under national liberalisation policies that have eliminated subsidies to state supported input supply and marketing service and have initiated fees for health services. Changes in other services may also be on the way, and PPP group members with their pool of resources and focus on self-help may be in a better position to respond to these changes than other small farmers.

In order to increase the economic benefits of group membership, the groups need strengthened organisation, especially at the inter-group association (AAC) level. The very limited market opportunities in the Province make significant economic benefits for the groups harder to both achieve and sustain than the existing social benefits. Strengthening the AACs and helping the groups develop a participatory monitoring and evaluation system could help improve the economic prospects of groups.

Under the evolving institutional structure of PPP, the role of the GP and the AACs will be crucial to ensure the sustainability of groups and their increased economic viability. The Group Promoters need to be motivated to help phase out external assistance and AACs need to be strengthened to take the place of GPs once project assistance ends. Though prospects for sustainability of individual groups is very high, progress to more complexity in organisation is unlikely to occur without some continued external assistance because of the extreme logistical and communication constraints of the Province.

  • For the full text of Jean Geran's study, see: Effect of group formation on rural women's access to services in Western Province, Zambia (107K).

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