Transforming Bhutan’s Agrifood System: Women Leading the Way

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Known for its stunning landscapes, Bhutan's true trailblazers are the women leading the agriculture sector. Known for its stunning landscapes and Gross National Happiness, Bhutan's true trailblazers are the women leading the agriculture sector.

Bhutan is renowned for its breathtaking landscapes, Gross National Happiness index, and commitment to sustainable and organic farming. Bhutan’s agrifood system feeds the country, provides jobs and livelihoods for most Bhutanese, and generates export earnings. Women constitute most of the agricultural labor force as farmers, retailers, or extension officers. 

Yet, economic and legal barriers hamper women from maximizing opportunities in the agrifood system. The Bhutan Labor Market Assessment finds that many females in rural areas are subsistence farmers, responsible for many unpaid duties, and have limited access to formal employment. In addition, the latest edition of the World Bank's Women, Business, and the Law 2024 report highlights various legal barriers impeding the economic empowerment and decision-making of female farmers in Bhutan. 

Four stories that explain how women transform Bhutan’s Agrifood System

Pema Thungzom is a young female farmer in mountainous Haa, where farming is challenging. Access to markets and inputs is limited and costly, young and male laborers emigrate, and climate change impacts traditional farming. Like many subsistence farmers, Pema primarily farms to feed her family. However, with her entrepreneurial mindset, Pema sought support from local government agencies to modernize and diversify her farm. She wants to establish a small agro-enterprise selling value-added products such as carrot candy. Yet, as a mother of two toddlers aged 2 and 5 years, balancing responsibilities remains a struggle.

Pema and her oldest son harvesting her potato field.

Pema and her oldest son harvesting her potato field.

Pema’s neighbor, Kinley Bidha, is a 53-year-old mother without formal education. A decade ago, her three daughters helped on her small farm while her husband worked as a carpenter.  Her family consumed most of the harvest, leaving few opportunities to earn an income from crop sales. However, over the last decade, with public support, Kinley was able to sell more of her harvest and make her farm more climate resilient. Kinley is now thriving in the organic farming of vegetables, allowing her to invest in her children's education. Kinley aspires to grow more tomatoes and chilies for local markets, but she struggles to access loans without collateral since the farmland is in her husband’s name.

Kinley with her husband showcasing the greenhouse in her field.

Kinley with her husband showcasing the greenhouse in her field.

Females are also the driving forces in the regional offices of the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock, which supports female farmers in their transition from subsistence to semi-commercial farming. Ugyen Wangmo, the agricultural extension officer in Haa, champions a women-led cooperative that engages local female farmers in sustainable organic vegetable production to sell outside Haa. Yet, Ugyen worries about her pension, as her absences for childcare responsibilities are not reflected in her pension benefits.

Ugyen featuring the women-led farmer cooperative in Haa.

Ugyen featuring the women-led farmer cooperative in Haa.

Female entrepreneurship in agrifood systems can be found across Bhutan. In Sarpang, located in of Southern Bhutan, Chhimi Dema and her daughter run Crystal Moon Products. These entrepreneurs collaborate with women in their community to source local fruits and vegetables for pickles, candies, spices, and cookies. They now want to export organic products outside Bhutan but lack the skills to do so.

Chhimi Dema, founder of Crystal Moon Products, and her female workers.

Chhimi Dema, founder of Crystal Moon Products, and her female workers.

From Policy to Practice: Practical and Legal Barriers in Bhutan’s Agrifood System

Bhutan has made remarkable progress in facilitating the sustainable transformation of Bhutan’s agrifood systems. The Renewable Natural Resources (RNR) Strategy 2040 and the Food and Nutrition Security (FNS) Policy 2023 aim to transform subsistence farming into semi-commercial production systems. These policies also prioritize gender equality and women's empowerment across the agrifood value chain. 

However, Pema, Kinley, Ugyen, and Chhimi still face challenges in tapping into new agricultural market opportunities. Female agrifood entrepreneurs often have no regular wages as they primarily work in small-scale food production or contribute to the farm as family members.  The recent outmigration of young males from Bhutan’s rural areas compounds females’ burden of unpaid domestic work and reinforces traditional gender roles. Female agro-entrepreneurs face unequal access to financial and technical resources to cope with the ever-growing challenges caused by climate change and human-wildlife conflict.

In addition, the recent Women, Business and the Law 2024 shows how Bhutanese female entrepreneurs face numerous legal constraints hindering their economic potential. Without land ownership rights, Kinley cannot access agricultural financing. Pema and Ugyen lack access to affordable quality childcare. Chimi lacks access to capacity building and skill development tailored to women in the agrifood system. 

Unlocking Potential for Women in the Agrifood System

Bhutan is well positioned to implement legal reforms and mainstream gender in agrifood policies. In finalizing the 13th five-year plan for 2024-2028, Bhutan can emphasize actions that integrate gender perspectives into legal and policy reforms.  These actions include access to affordable, high-quality childcare, enabling entrepreneurial female farmers like Pema to invest more time and resources to expand their agro-enterprise. Meanwhile, access to collateral-free loans and microfinance tailored to women’s needs allows vulnerable farmers like Kinley to diversify their farms and meet increasing demands for healthy foods. Additionally, improving the size of women’s pensions, equalizing retirement ages, and considering childcare absences in pension benefits can benefit female wage workers like Ugyen.

Enhancing female representation in farmers’ groups such as the Bhutan Association of Women Entrepreneurs and deploying Gender Focal Points in rural communities can also ensure inclusivity. Finally, an integrated Gender Strategy involving a whole-of-government approach and private sector collaboration and leveraging existing resources like gender analysis training manuals could bridge the gaps between policy and implementation.

As highlighted in Bhutan’s Labour Force Market Assessment report, institutional reforms and improved service delivery need to complement these legal and policy reforms to promote female entrepreneurs’ productivity, leadership, and market access. With the assistance of the World Bank, Bhutan has made significant strides in tailoring rural support systems towards female entrepreneurs: 

Such policy actions would help more women transition from subsistence-oriented smallholders to semi-commercial agro-enterpreneurs. By harnessing women's potential, Bhutan can pave the way for inclusive and sustainable development, ensuring a prosperous future for all. 

Hannelore Maria Leona Niesten

Consultant at the World Bank Group

Joachim Vandercasteelen

Economist, Agriculture and Food Practice - South Asia

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