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What’s a Female Food Hero? I visited one to find out

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Asgedech W/Tensay greets visitors at her home. Photo by Victoria Donahue/Oxfam America

Putting the spotlight on small-scale women farmers in Ethiopia, and the world.

Tori Donahue is Oxfam America’s media & public relations coordinator.

Earlier this spring, I traveled down a steep dirt road to a small village in order to meet one of Ethiopia’s newest television stars. On top of the hill overlooking Debre Berhan, I saw metal roofs, tool sheds and animals—lots of animals. Why? Because this TV star is famous for her farming skills.

I’ve recently collaborated with different journalists on a topic you rarely see in the news: small-scale female farmers. The women involved in Oxfam’s Female Food Heroes programs throughout the world are creating a new awareness about the role that small-scale women farmers play in food production, and the world is listening. The woman I visited, Asgedech W/Tensay, is the winner of Amhara region’s 2015 Female Food Hero prize and now, one of the most well-known farmers in Ethiopia. Even though I’ve been working with media on the Female Food Heroes program for almost a year, meeting one in person was a brand new experience.

Why Female Farmers?

The World Food Program estimates that giving women farmers more resources could bring the number of hungry people in the world down by 100 million to 150 million people. Shining the spotlight on women farmers, and helping find them the resources they need to flourish, could ultimately end poverty.

In Ethiopia, Asgedech was selected as one of 10 Female Food Heroes in the summer of 2015. The women were brought together as a group in Addis Ababa to learn about entrepreneurship and sustainable agriculture; Asgedech learned the value of expanding her businesses beyond her own village, especially outside of the growing season. The women’s progress was documented by a film crew and on local radio stations. The Female Food Heroes award ceremony aired on live TV, resulting in national interest in these women farmers. Ethiopia’s Female Food Heroes have traveled the globe with Oxfam as agricultural ambassadors; many women from the program have also gone on to serve as leaders in their village, often as the only female voice.

A Warm Welcome

Upon my arrival to Asgedech’s house, I was greeted by a group of women from her village and several children. After Asgedech and the other women prepared traditional coffee, bread and popcorn, I gathered around the food to hear about her experience as the one of Ethiopia’s newest Female Food Heroes.

“The Female Food Heroes program has made me proud and satisfied to be a farmer,” she said. “It’s given me the energy to work even harder on my farm. After winning, I’m even more pleased with all my accomplishments.”

“Ethiopia is so diverse,” Asgedech said. “I enjoyed meeting women who taught me a lot of new things I would have never tried on my farm by myself, including different ways of harvesting crops and cooking new meals. Before I became a Female Food Hero, I felt like I was a good farmer but I didn’t know how to become a leader for others. Now people in my village and beyond come to me for their food and alcohol after seeing me on the program.”

I visited Asgedech during the offseason, so she is currently focusing on breeding animals and selling katikala, a clear alcohol that she produces at her home for people in her village and beyond. She has a dark, cool shed in her backyard where the alcohol can ferment, as well as a stable for her oxen, donkeys, cows, and horses. During the growing season, she uses her farm (1.5 hectares, about 3.7 acres) and occasionally rents additional land for the government to grow crops. She employees 10 people on her farm to help with the production and distribution of her many fruits and vegetables during harvesting season.

Hearing about Asgedech’s incredible work ethic opened my eyes to the power of female farmers. She is constantly working to better her business, no matter the season. One of the main reasons that she won the Female Food Hero prize was her hardworking attitude and passion for fruits and vegetables.

Wheat growing well in the Amhara region of Ethiopia, 2015. Photo by Coco McCabe/Oxfam America

In many parts of the world, women are still not allowed to own land, or must give up their land when the male in her life, usually a husband or father, falls ill or dies. Even a small amount of land can make a huge difference in the types of crops grown and harvested, Asgedech emphasized. Organizations like Oxfam need to continue speaking out for female farmers to own land and have the resources to produce more food—on top of farming, these women do so much to better their communities. Even though I’ve been working with Female Food Heroes for almost a year, it took an in-person visit to see what incredible, strong women they truly are and the impact they have on everyone around them.

A Life-Changing Experience

The Female Food Heroes program changed Asgedech’s approach to farming and leadership, specifically as a businesswoman—she proudly displays her trophy from the Female Food Heroes ceremony in her living room next to photographs of her friends and family. Today, Asgedech plans to oversee a larger staff during the busy season. And she now works with more vendors and government officials since winning from her region last year. Even though her life has changed since winning the program, Asgedech insists that Ethiopia is full of noteworthy female farmers who have yet to join Female Food Heroes: “Ethiopian women are very, very hard working. We need better resources and more assistance to improve our farming – but there are heroes in agriculture everywhere.”

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  1. Donahuefour@aol.com'Donna

    Thank you for this insightful look at the amazing female food heros. Not only is this program helping women to farm but it is empowering them to teach others and to be self-sustaining.

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