Thursday, February 03, 2011

Afghanistan: Economic Empowerment Through the Garden Gate

Source: Government of Canada

Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world. Through the course of Canada's work to improve the circumstances of Afghans, new opportunities are emerging. One such example is the Mennonite Economic Development Associates' (MEDA) project called "Through the Garden Gate: Integrating Women into Markets." Because of the success of this project, MEDA is helping to change the economic circumstances for some 2,300 Afghan women and their families. By creating connections, Afghan women in rural northern communities are growing vegetables, first, as a means to feed their families and, as the project progresses, to sell at local markets.

With support from the Canadian International Development Agency, this initiative is the first of its kind in Afghanistan that works to develop the skills of women farmers. It aims to remove some of the obstacles women face to earn an income and to teach them ways to support themselves and their families. Started in 2006, the project is run in Parwan province, which is located in northern Afghanistan. Today, work is carried out in nine villages and with the support of 90 lead farmers.

The success of these women starts with their work in areas that they already know, which is an important feature of the project design. Expanding on common tasks, such as growing fruits and vegetables in a home garden, allows these women to increase their skills and begin their businesses.

Working closely with a local non-governmental organization, Afghan Women's Business Council, MEDA uses a training and mentoring approach to teach project participants new skills. Project coordinators work with lead farmers in a community to plant a demonstration plot of vegetables or fruit, starting with carrots, cucumbers, onions, potatoes and tomatoes. Participants are taught basic skills such as the benefits of row planting and the importance of weeding. The lead farmers reach out to other women in their community to help them start their own garden. Often widows are very active in this project as they are looking for ways to support their families.

Early successes of the project come from the produce that is grown. Soon enough there are products to take to the market to sell. At this stage, these networks of women farmers, with the support and encouragement of the project, become even more organized. They learn how to process their products for the market, assess the quality of their product and package and label it. Participants are taught about the benefits of composting and about how using it as fertilizer can increase crop yields. They learn storage techniques, including how to store products underground. As a result, each of the nine villages that participate in the project now has underground storage facilities and women rent the space they need. Some communities build simple greenhouses, which allows them to start growing crops earlier in the season. Having a longer growing season often improves the quality of the crop, which means it can be sold at the market for a higher price. One community has invested in a solar dryer with some of its earnings. Drying the products preserves them and extends their market life.

The networking approach of "Through the Garden Gate: Integrating Women into Markets" encourages women to come together and talk about their work, ask questions and share experiences. Through the connections established "through the garden gate," these women learn new skills, start a business, and earn income; their confidence grows as their businesses do, and they work to build the foundation of a better future for themselves and their families.