One thing that tends to generate much enthusiastic discussion amongst my colleagues working in market systems development is “win-win” partnerships with private companies. At its most simplistic, we aim to improve the lives of poor people engaged in particular value chains, whilst companies aim to maximise their profits – but sometimes both can be achieved, with the company being able to demonstrate corporate social responsibility. In Pakistan, a fledgling partnership with the food giant Mars (which produces a well-known brand of rice) is showing considerable promise in this regard. At least, there has been talk in the office of an interesting study for quite some months, and now the study report has arrived in my inbox.
To put the study in context, it is an initiative that falls under the Water Productivity Project (WAPRO), which focuses on improving the efficiency of water use in the cultivation of rice and cotton. Linking with large companies engaged in these two value chains is part of the project design. WAPRO is supported by the Swiss Agency for Cooperation and Development, and implemented by Helvetas in Kyrgyzstan and Pakistan. In Pakistan’s Punjab province, the focus of WAPRO has been on testing new methods of rice cultivation that are more precise and less demanding in water requirements. They are also less demanding in terms of labour – and it was the consequences for household incomes that prompted the study.
In Pakistan (as in many other countries), there are clear gender-defined roles in paddy production. Most tasks are undertaken by men, and it is men who control the final income gained through the sale of the paddy. However, the back-breaking job of transplanting the rice seedlings from nursery beds into the paddy fields is done by women; both women and men interviewed considered that it was “too hard” a job for men. The study analysed the women’s contribution to the household finances, and sought their ideas on alternative sources of income should the demand for transplanting work be reduced. Apparently the very fact of asking women their opinions was novel, and meetings were crowded; in all some 320 women participated.
Although agricultural labour is in general poorly paid, transplanting work is relatively well remunerated as it is recognised as difficult work. It was an eye-opener to the women labourers to learn from the study that roughly half of the total income earned by households from paddy cultivation is earned by them. Nevertheless, they welcomed alternative sources of employment. In the Punjab, field temperatures rise to over 40˚C at transplanting time, there is no shade, and leeches lurk in the muddy water. Any available drinking water is polluted. Women often become sick, and have to spend considerable parts of the money that they earn on medical expenses. They do the work because they have no alternative – and in the aspiration that with their earnings, they can change the future of their children. According to two of the most vocal women (I will not quote names here), “Education is the key to change our lives. For us education and health are priorities….As top priority we need a high school for our girls to remove the misery from their lives which we have experienced. We don’t want them to be a part of this hand to mouth living. If our children get educated they will get jobs and be free from hard labour”.
The good news from the study is that there are a number of relatively easy steps that can be taken to improve the women’s situation at the same time as introducing the more water-efficient and labour-reducing methods of paddy cultivation. One concerns an alleviation of the current labour situation through the offer of better and more affordable medical services, and the provision of clean drinking water. Another is a step towards the desire for education, especially for girls, with the establishment of a girl’s secondary school nearby. And the third is a more detailed investigation into, and support for, alternative ways sources of income; here the report makes various suggestions for follow-up.
So now it is over to Mars Food to pursue the recommendations, and indeed it seems that the company is already taking steps to do so. On a more sober note to end, though, the report’s authors also note that 90% of the women interviewed stated that they experience domestic violence – but that this is “within normal limits”. Now there is something that really requires greater investigation and action.