Opportunities for women

This work supports the following UN Sustainable Development Goals

  • Quality Education
  • Gender Equality
  • Decent Work and Economic Growth
  • Reduced Inequalities
  • Partnership For The Goals

Enhancing women’s access to training & skills

We want to help women across our value chain – employees, farmers, entrepreneurs and consumers – to unlock their full potential. The gains are big, particularly for women farmers who can increase their yields, enhance their incomes and provide the sustainable supply of ingredients our business needs.

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Empowering women farmers, strengthening our supply chain

Female farmer icon

Of agricultural workers are women

growing infographic icon

Potential uplift in yields on women’s farms – if women have equality of access

Female farmer icon

More people could be fed − potentially halving world hunger

Farmers need knowledge – and not just of sustainable agricultural practices. Smallholder farmers draw on a wide range of agricultural and business skills, including entrepreneurship and finance. And, like everyone, key life-skills in areas including nutrition, sanitation and hygiene can make a huge difference to their own lives and the communities they live in.

But all too often, women and girls are left behind when it comes to education. Making sure they have access to training and skills is critical to expanding female participation in the economy, and to closing the gender gap.

We want to empower women throughout our supply chain. And we know there's a particular opportunity when it comes to women farmers − both in terms of their own livelihoods, and for the wider communities in which they live.

Women already comprise 43% of the agricultural workforce, and this proportion is growing.1

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, if women had the same access to land, technology, financial services, education and markets as men, yields on women’s farms could increase by as much as 20%–30%.2 That's an uplift that could feed between 100 million and 150 million more people, reducing world hunger by nearly half. So, by helping women gain the skills they need to unlock their potential, we have the opportunity to achieve a huge positive social impact.

And the business case for Unilever is clear. Hundreds of thousands of women grow crops and commodities that we buy, usually through our suppliers, to make our products. Investing in the skills of women can strengthen the agricultural supply chains which we depend on for our ingredients, build trust in our business, and create a sustainable foundation for our future growth.

Overcoming barriers, creating opportunity

Many smallholder farmers have to tackle challenges ranging from limited knowledge and credit to poor access to markets. Women farmers can face additional barriers, often as a result of unhelpful existing customs and stereotypes. The lack of role models is one barrier, and research shows it’s an important one, as positive role models can drive change.3 For example, women on village councils or on TV or radio can challenge stereotypes on what is acceptable or typical for women to do.

Another common barrier is training programmes that have traditionally catered for men. These may be available only at inconvenient times and places for women with childcare and family responsibilities. They may take place in locations that are unsafe, or use learning materials designed with men in mind. At the same time, limited rights to land ownership may preclude women from raising finance to support farm investment programmes designed to improve yields and incomes.

How we’re reaching women farmers

Few of the farmers and smallholders in our agricultural supply chain sell directly to us – we generally buy from suppliers, who buy from the farmers. As a result, we've developed an approach that enables us to reach women farmers through:

  • financial support for farmer training programmes, delivered by suppliers and NGOs

  • premium prices for suppliers who invest in farmer training and provide quality planting material, such as high-yield seeds

  • funding for technical solutions that improve productivity and environmental sustainability

  • development of business and life-skill programmes (ie financial literacy, hygiene and nutrition training modules with experts)

  • access to labour- and time-saving devices such as cook-stoves and clothes washing equipment

By the end of 2018, we had enabled access to training and skills for 1.72 million women. Our work to address the barriers facing women more widely is described in Challenging harmful gender norms.


Man holding tea leaves

Better finance skills for better farming

It takes more than expert knowledge of agriculture to thrive as a smallholder farmer. Understanding how to manage finances helps build resilience and often feeds into better farming decisions, which can result in greater yields.

In many places, though, limited access to financial training has been one of the educational barriers holding back smallholders, and women farmers in particular. We aim to change that.

Since 2016, we've worked with partners International Finance Corporation and the Kenya Tea Development Agency to deliver financial literacy training to tea smallholders in Kenya. We aim to reach 128,000 farmers − and a key part of the programme is that half the participants are women. In fact, the programme is designed to involve the entire family, encouraging joint decision-making between men and women on their smallholdings.

The training aims to give farmers the skills to help them make critical financial decisions in areas like fertiliser purchases, debt management and hiring. It also seeks to help them diversify their incomes through other crops. By the end of 2018, the programme had reached 60,000 smallholders, half of whom were women.

An inclusive business, built on empowerment

Empowering smallholder farmers is not just a vital element of the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan – it’s key to our business strategy. As we describe in Inclusive business, we rely on smallholders for a sustainable supply of some of our most important ingredients, including tea, palm oil, vegetables, cocoa and vanilla.

We run a wide range of programmes and partnerships aimed at enhancing smallholders' livelihoods – and many have a specific emphasis on women farmers.

One example is the Enhancing Livelihoods Fund (ELF), a joint initiative between Unilever, Oxfam and the Ford Foundation which has financial support from the Ford Foundation and Unilever. ELF awards grants to partners in our supply chains who have projects that improve their social impact in sourcing from smallholder producers. The projects must empower women in the supply chain, minimise risk for the smallholders, and improve conditions for workers. They must also support our sustainable sourcing objectives.

Since ELF was launched in 2015, it has funded five projects, covering a range of crops. We've been able to analyse the results from its first concluded programme, a partnership with our supplier Marcatus QED. The programme sought to increase yields of gherkins in Marcatus QED’s Indian supply chain. The final evaluation of the project found a 22% average increase in income from the gherkin crop compared to baseline.

To assess the impact of its video-based training methodology, Marcatus QED collected data from a randomised selection of farmers in over 1,200 villages between November 2015 and April 2016. The results demonstrated:

  • a 63% adoption rate of practices shown through group video screenings
  • 20% average increase in yields compared to a group of non-participants, and
  • 24% increase in net income compared to a group of non-participants.


Ylang Ylang for Comoros

Empowering women ylang-ylang farmers in the Comoros

Ylang-ylang flowers provide the essential oils that help fragrance some of our best-loved Home Care brands. In the Indian Ocean islands of the Comoros, we're working on an innovative programme to support women growers and pickers of ylang-ylang. Its aim is to help women empower themselves and generate new ways to build their incomes, including through distilling the essential oils themselves.

Launched in 2017 through the Enhancing Livelihoods Fund (ELF), the Comoros project works with our fragrance supplier, Firmenich, to ensure a better representation of women in the supply chain and to help them to get a higher and more stable income. By 2018, 250 women were receiving training in sustainable agricultural practices. They’re also building their knowledge in areas such as literacy and numeracy, entrepreneurship and family planning. Access to a health insurance scheme and income diversification activities are also key elements.

Access to land rights leads to better livelihoods

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO),4 while women are a large part of the agricultural workforce, they are often unpaid and can be excluded from sharing the profits of their labour. This is because they have less access to resources than men – fewer inputs, limitations on land ownership and barriers in access to training and financing.

Female farmer icon

Of agricultural land holdings in developing countries are controlled by women

In fact, the FAO estimates that less than a quarter of agricultural land holdings in developing countries are controlled by women, so women are disproportionately disadvantaged when it comes to land rights. In places where women cannot own or control the land they work, they can be deterred from investing in productivity improvements. They also tend to have smaller farms that are less productive. 5

We believe land rights are a powerful way to help people develop sustainable livelihoods. Enhancing land rights in general will empower women, as well as lay the foundation for other development investments to take root – such as education programmes, financial services and healthcare. And as we estimate around 30% of the smallholders in our supply chain are women, addressing this issue has considerable potential.

Land rights are one of our eight salient human rights issues

Respect for land rights is part of our overall policy framework, and is one of the principles of our Responsible Sourcing Policy and our Responsible Business Partner Policy.

In 2017, with the aid of an external implementation organisation, we created Global Land Rights Principles and Due Diligence Implementation Guidelines for our own operations. These will provide enhanced due diligence relating to all our transactions involving land. We will roll these out to our operations before extending to our suppliers.

For further details, see our Human Rights Report 2017 (PDF | 10MB).

1Private Sector Engagement with Women’s Economic Empowerment: Lessons Learned from Years of Practice

2Private Sector Engagement with Women’s Economic Empowerment: Lessons Learned from Years of Practice

3Leave no one behind: A call to action for gender equality and women’s economic empowerment

4The Role of Women in Agriculture (PDF - 857kB)

5FAO. 2011 (PDF - 3.3MB). The State of Food and Agriculture 2010–2011. Women in Agriculture: Closing the Gender Gap for Development

  Independently assured by PwC

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