Posted June 1996
Empowering Zambian rural women through small farmer groups
by John Rouse
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.
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.
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
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
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
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).