Harnessing the Power of Female Dryland Cooperatives 

October 13, 2022
Published by
ICARDA Communication Team
Couscous production in Morocco
Couscous production in Morocco

ICARDA is grateful to the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), to the Partnership for Research and Innovation in the Mediterranean Area (PRIMA), and to CGIAR's Central and West Asia and North Africa Initiative (CWANA) for funding this research. ICARDA would also like to recognize its valuable partners Oxfam Morocco, the Office de l'Elevage et des Pâturages (OEP) in Tunisia, and the Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique de Tunisie (INRAT). 


To celebrate International Rural Women's Day, ICARDA is releasing two videos showing the imperative of supporting female cooperative members through quality, technology training, and skill development. The videos also emphasize the importance of addressing structural barriers to women's participation in development programs, such as workload and engagement with service providers. 

Over the years, ICARDA and Oxfam have increased female cooperatives members' access to several valuable and suitable technologies that have ramped up their skills and income, cut down on hard manual labor, and addressed harmful norms around leadership and marketing. 

This year's Day's theme, 'Rural Women Cultivating Good Food for All,' aligns with ICARDA's gender research for development in the dry areas – where female farmers and rural women are the backbones of crop and pastoral systems. 

'Harnessing the power of collective' is a three-minute-long film directed by ICARDA's Senior Gender Scientist, Dr. Dina Najjar, in the Middle Atlas region of Morocco. It showcases ICARDA and Oxfam's work supporting female agricultural cooperatives' access to wider markets - and engaging in improved dialogues with service providers.  

Harnessing the power of collectives

In Morocco, cooperatives are pivotal in combating poverty. According to the National Office for Development and Cooperation (ODCO), no less than 16,000 cooperatives were active in 2015, with 120 new ones established each month. By creating jobs and promoting local products and know-how, cooperatives are the beating heart of local economies, particularly in the country's rural and remote areas. 

Across the country, about half of the operational 2,300 women-only cooperatives work in agriculture, argan, and aromatic and medicinal plants. However, little is known about cooperatives involved in cereal-based products, such as couscous – a key food staple of the Maghreb, which is moistened and tossed semolina flour derived from durum wheat. 

And while cooperatives have been shown to significantly improve women's livelihoods, entrepreneurial skills, and confidence levels, many face challenges when trying to sell their products outside of local markets. "Hurdles exist at different levels," explains Dr. Najjar, who directed the movie. 

"Cooperatives can struggle with low capital, limited marketing, and insufficient managerial skills. In the case of the fifteen female cooperatives OXFAM and ICARDA worked with, they did not have the sanitary certification to sell their products to larger markets or online," she says. "More recently, we are also targeting harmful norms around leadership and marketing," Dr, Najjar adds.  

The members of the cooperatives – all based in the central Moroccan region of Fes-Meknes - received training on marketing, leadership, and engagement with service providers, while learning to produce couscous, aromatic and medicinal plants, honey, and rabbit breeding under the strict guidelines of the national food safety office ONNSA.  

"As a result of stronger market linkages and after receiving their ONNSA certification, the cooperatives' sales went up locally and regionally," said Dr. Najjar.


"Without women farmers, a man cannot do anything: he won't raise sheep or cows, he won't grow cereals, nor plant olive trees," said Tunisian farmer Lazher Bouzayen in the first few seconds of ICARDA's second movie, shot and directed in Tunisia's drylands.  

Integrating gender in the use of Conservation Agriculture for Crop and Livestock System (CLCA) 

The handheld seeder showcased in the movie is a gender-sensitive innovation that allows women to spread seeds efficiently on their land without exerting too much physical efforts. The manual seeder means that they no longer need to hire male labor, or experience delayed sowing. 

Women's cooperatives are one of the best tools to lift women out of poverty in the rural areas of Morocco, Tunisia, and throughout the drylands.  

But perhaps more importantly, the project is rebalancing the relationship between female cooperative members and service providers, particularly extension officers and seed and machinery providers. The project is also recalibrating women's participation and engagement in agricultural projects. It is deliberately inclusive, and fosters women as active agents of change. 

"Women's triple day at home, at work, and with the community urges us to think about workload reduction and their invisible roles to be validated and supported," says Dina Najjar. "Without them, farming systems would break down."