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 help provide the sustainable supply of ingredients our business needs.

Fair & Lovely Career Foundation

Empowering women farmers, strengthening our supply chain

Female farmer icon

Of agricultural workers are women

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. Key life-skills in areas such as nutrition, sanitation and hygiene can also make a huge difference to farmers’ lives and to 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.

Unlocking women's potential through sustainable agriculture

growing infographic icon

Potential uplift in yields on women’s farms

Female farmer icon

More people could be fed − potentially halving world hunger

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 overcome the barriers they face and gain the skills they need to unlock their potential, we have the opportunity to achieve a huge positive social impact.

By training women farmers in the sustainable practices that help increase biodiversity, enrich soils and improve watersheds, better yields can come alongside better stewardship of the environment.

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. So when we design programmes, we look at them through a gender lens to ensure they suit the needs of women. 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 2019, we had enabled access to training and skills for around 2.3 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, IDH (the Sustainable Trade Initiative) and the Kenya Tea Development Agency (KTDA) 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. In 2019, the partners worked to increase the focus on gender and economic empowerment in the programme, which will be adapted in 2020.

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 socio-environmental 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 six projects, covering a range of crops.

Assessing the impact of Enhancing Livelihoods Fund programmes

We've been able to analyse the results from a number of our ELF programmes, all of which generate lessons for future projects. The first concluded programme, a partnership with our supplier Marcatus QED, 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 the 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.

More details on ELF programmes can be found in Connecting with smallholder farmers to enhance livelihoods.


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. The aim is to invest in programmes that help women generate new ways to build their incomes, including through distilling the essential oils themselves, and thus empowering themselves.

Initiated in 2017 through the Enhancing Livelihoods Fund (ELF), the Comoros project worked 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 2019, over 250 women had received training in sustainable agricultural practices. They also built their knowledge in areas such as literacy and numeracy, entrepreneurship and family planning. Access to a health insurance scheme and income diversification activities were key elements too.

The programme was assessed in 2019. Among a wide range of other initiatives, the assessment found that 202 women had received training on alternative income generation, including vegetable gardens and poultry-raising, 108 women had attended literacy and numeracy training, and 113 women had received entrepreneurial skills training.

As with any project of this type, we’ve learnt a number of lessons, including the importance of establishing strong commercial relationships, and the difficulty of measuring product quality. An external consultant concluded that the farmers' new skills now generate perceptible effects on livelihoods, and that the training and coaching have resulted in an improved perception of the pickers, and greater participation in the village and within the value chain.

Exploring new ways to transform farming

Alongside our programmes on specific crops, we also look for ways to transform wider aspects of the farming system.

Smallholders are stewards of the land, soil and forests. Integrating smallholders into the value chain is critical to sustainable land use and in protecting forests and biodiversity.

Marc Engel, our Chief Supply Chain Officer

One of the most exciting areas we're exploring is public–private partnership, which can unlock the investment that will change the lives of smallholders.


In 2020, we supported the launch of the IDH Farmfit Fund, the world’s biggest ever public–private impact fund for smallholder farmers.

The Fund’s innovative financing model aims to make investments in smallholder farmers attractive by lowering risks and costs for both farmers and investors. Starting with €100 million, the Fund is expected to raise billions of euros to address the $170 billion financing gap in smallholder farming finance.

The Fund is backed by significant funding from the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs and guarantees from the US Agency for International Development.


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.

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.

With the aid of an external implementation organisation, in 2017 we created an internal policy to set out Global Land Rights Principles and Due Diligence Implementation Guidelines for our own operations. These provide enhanced due diligence relating to all our transactions involving land. For examples of how we applied our approach to land rights in 2019, see Understanding and reporting on our human rights impacts or our Human Rights Report 2017 (PDF | 10MB).

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

2 Private 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.

5FAO. 2011. The State of Food and Agriculture 2010–2011. Women in Agriculture: Closing the Gender Gap for Development.