For several years during my childhood, I helped my mother plant vegetables and harvest crops on an urban farm in the distant suburbs of Ulaanbaatar, the capital city of Mongolia. Growing up working on the farm with my siblings and observing my mother work diligently towards the goal of full harvest made me realize what a challenging yet fulfilling journey it is to be a female farmer in a developing country. My mother refused to yield when confronted with adversity--Mongolia’s harsh climate, crop theft, as well as a lack of necessary inputs, labor, and agricultural services- all while taking care of her four children and handling chores.
Despite facing many obstacles, she remained responsible, persistent, and optimistic. I witnessed firsthand that my mother’s inner strength or “grit” was key in how she overcame challenges and ensured a fruitful family farm business. Her passion and hard work was contagious across the neighborhood where she volunteered at a local women’s farming nonprofit organization. She taught over 400 women in poor areas to become self-sufficient by growing and selling vegetables for sustainable income. One common quality I observed among these female farmers was their strong will to persevere regardless of difficulties in life.
In the farming sector, cultivating and selling crops is a crucial part of building and maintaining a profitable agribusiness. Farming cash crops typically requires large costly investments in farm labor and inputs in addition to specific knowledge on how to grow and sell these crops. A myriad of challenges arises in developing countries, such as limited access to agricultural markets, a lack of quality inputs, and incomplete financial markets, which raises the costs, risk, and uncertainty of these investments. These barriers are likely stronger for women because of traditional gender norms in agriculture.
According to the World Bank Africa Gender Innovation Lab (GIL)’s evidence from Malawi, women’s non-cognitive entrepreneurial skills or soft skills, such as perseverance, optimism, and passion for work, can help women farmers overcome obstacles and adopt the lucrative cash crops for successful careers in agriculture. GIL analyzed data from about 500 farming households in Malawi and looked specifically at non-cognitive skills of women farmers and the adoption of tobacco, a highly profitable crop in Malawi. The results revealed that farms managed by higher non-cognitive ability women were significantly more likely to produce tobacco than farms managed by lower non-cognitive ability. This suggests that non-cognitive skills can yield high returns in entrepreneurial outcomes in rural areas, and it is an opportunity for policymakers to design interventions focused on equipping women farmers with such skills to improve their self-sufficiency and economic empowerment.
Across the continent in Togo, results from another GIL impact evaluation again reveal the importance of soft skills in urban areas. This experiment revealed that teaching women to develop an entrepreneurial mindset through personal initiative training is a more effective and powerful tool to help them achieve higher profits, innovate more, and succeed in the business sector compared to standard business training. Inspired by these promising results from both Malawi and Togo, GIL is currently conducting a randomized controlled trial in Mozambique to measure the impact of a personal initiative training for women farmers.
The GIL’s experimental evidence, coupled with my personal experience observing my mother and other female farmers in Mongolia, further strengthened my belief in the key role of non-cognitive skills in agricultural productivity and poverty reduction. However, there is not enough evidence on understanding the nuances of non-cognitive skills in other contexts and what works to strengthen these skills in women farmers. The call-to-action here is for policymakers around the world to focus on designing, piloting, and evaluating evidence-based programming that fosters such skills among women farmers and leverages the power of “grit” across continental boundaries.