In the rural district of Kolar in Karnataka, India, dairy farmer Muniratnamma kicks off her day early to feed and milk her cows. Once she collects the milk, her husband takes it to the local dairy cooperative. She then cleans the shed, collects the dung, and gathers it in a heap near her house. Before leaving to work on their sericulture (silkworm rearing) farm, she cooks for her family. She relies on firewood or liquified petroleum gas (LPG) for kitchen fuel. Due to the high cost and difficulty of transporting LPG, Muniratnamma often resorts to collecting firewood, taking up more of her time during the day. She must also carefully manage her LPG use to ensure it lasts one to two months, restricting her cooking time and food choices.  

Gendered division of labor in dairy farming

Muniratnamma at her home in Karnataka, India

Dairy farming in India and other countries like Kenya predominantly involves women taking primary responsibility for milking and animal care. Milking is a time-consuming activity, often done twice daily in the early mornings and evenings. Women must also feed, water, and clean the animals and manage their health. Despite their outsized contributions to the sector, women dairy farmers face significant challenges. They lack access to land, livestock, financial resources, and technology, hindering their productivity and income potential. They do not have the authority to decide on dairy extension services that can improve productivity and milk quality, marketing opportunities, financial services, and other considerations. They are often excluded from decision-making within households and dairy cooperatives, limiting their control over resources and income. Their work is often seen as an extension of domestic work, and the time poverty resulting from the long hours they spend on dairy farming leaves little time for leisure, education, or other activities.

Despite bearing the heavily labor-intensive tasks of milking and caring for the animals, women dairy farmers in India and Kenya do not own the cattle or the land. Since cattle and land are often used as collateral to access financing, women are inherently denied access to financing options. These challenges faced by women dairy farmers call for targeted gender-intentional initiatives that rectify these disparities, address their specific challenges, and foster an environment that acknowledges and values their significant contributions.

Bridging the gap for women dairy farmers

Accion, with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, is exploring demonstration models to offer affordable financing options for productive assets in India and Kenya. This project aims to leverage partnerships to drive scale, intentionally design and deliver financial products to drive adoption, and better support women’s empowerment by enabling them to access and own productive assets, such as biodigesters. Biodigesters are systems that break down farm animal waste and convert it into biogas, which can be used for cooking fuel, and other by-products, like bio-slurry, that can be used as fertilizers. In India, Accion selected biodigesters as the gateway asset for the focus of this project.  

Biodigesters are systems that break down organic farm animal waste and convert it into biogas, which can be used for cooking fuel, and other outputs like fertilizer.

In our previous research collaboration with CGAP, we found that the biggest obstacle preventing farmers from installing biodigesters is the upfront cost of investment. For a smallholder woman dairy farmer, the cash outlay presents a trade-off between short-term needs, such as household and production requirements, and long-term cost savings. With our partnership approach, the cost of the biodigester is subsidized by around 80 percent through carbon credit financing, making it affordable for small dairy farmers.

Carbon credit financing involves the generation of tradable carbon credits by projects that reduce or remove greenhouse gas emissions. In the context of our collaboration, the implementation of biodigesters leads to a significant reduction in methane emissions from traditional manure management practices on dairy farms. These emission reductions result in the generation of carbon credits, which can then be sold on the carbon market. The revenue generated from selling these credits is utilized to offset a substantial portion of the upfront cost of biodigesters, making them more affordable for small dairy farmers.

Now, with a biodigester installed, women dairy farmers like Muniratnamma do not have to be concerned about the monetary implication of their cooking time, or let that factor into their cooking decisions. She no longer has to worry about collecting firewood or darkening the kitchen with fumes from the chulha, or woodburning stove. She can also use bio-slurry in her fields, reducing fertilizer expenses.

Case study

After facing the challenges of traditional cooking methods and relying on LPG for her daily household needs, Yasodaben, a dairy farmer in Gujarat, India, made the shift to biogas by installing a biodigester on her farm. She enthusiastically expressed, “It’s like the gas is free since it comes from cow dung.” This transformative energy source not only lessened her financial burden of purchasing LPG but also empowered Yasodaben with newfound independence. “Before, I needed my husband’s help to connect LPG to the stove. I was scared as it could have leakages. I am stress-free about using biogas as there is no risk of explosion.

Now, with biogas, I can easily manage it on my own.” The shift to biogas brought economic relief and eased her burden of daily chores. Reflecting on her past concerns, she shared, “I used to worry about running out of LPG before two months were up. Now, I don’t have to worry about any of this.” Using biogas has also improved the cleanliness of her kitchen. “I can have a clean kitchen without any dark spots on the walls.” Yasodaben’s experience highlights the transformative potential of sustainable energy solutions in rural settings, especially for women farmers who often must use woodburning stoves that fill their homes with smoke. Beyond economic benefits, the adoption of biogas has empowered her with confidence and independence.

Challenges preventing women from owning biodigesters

Despite the value proposition for women dairy farmers, our research found that women still face challenges in owning a biodigester, beyond a lack of cash to install one on their farms. One major challenge preventing women farmers from owning biodigesters relates to ownership of the bank account where the income from milk was being credited. We found that these factors drove that account ownership by women:

  1. Partners’ emphasis: The partners we collaborated with to design the demonstration models placed varying levels of emphasis on women owning both the biodigester and the milk money account. Women who were part of a partner’s network that deliberately emphasized their ownership of the asset and account displayed higher levels of involvement in decision-making than those outside the network.
  2. Government subsidies: The prospect of government subsidies, or additional benefits linked to having the account in the woman’s name, served as a driving force for women to take ownership.
  3. Existing loans: In cases where the husband had an existing loan in his name, there was a tendency to choose the woman’s account for milk money. This decision stemmed from concerns about the bank deducting money without consultation if the account was in the husband’s name.

In some cases, women actively took the lead in purchasing the biodigester, while women weren’t consulted or informed about the purchase in others. Tokenism was also prevalent, and asset ownership often centered around whose account the milk money was coming from. We noted that the higher the woman’s involvement in managing the income from milk sales, the greater her participation in decision-making regarding purchasing a biodigester.

Four intentional approaches for inclusive impact

Despite the evident advantages of biodigesters, reaching more women farmers has proven to be a complex task, entangled in societal norms and financial dependencies. However, recognizing these challenges opens the door to developing a more intentional approach. We observed that:

  1. Fostering women-centric community engagement is important to drive awareness among women dairy farmers about how biodigesters can ease the daily lives of women by alleviating the burdens of traditional cooking methods. Regular workshops and awareness programs emphasizing these advantages can be strategically conducted in places where women gather, such as child-care and self-help group centers.
  2. Mindful consideration of the digital divide is essential for effective program design. In Kenya, only 55 percent of women dairy farmers interviewed had shared access to a smartphone. The cost of data is a major concern for farmers in Kenya, unlike in India, where it is not a restricting factor. So, while developing training tools, we must be mindful of this digital divide and opt for a hybrid “phygital” approach where in-person interactions still occur. We also observed that female field staff received in better engagement with women dairy farmers.
  3. Financial inclusion is critical to strengthen the link between biodigester ownership and milk moneyaccounts. Promoting initiatives that encourage women to establish their own bank accounts, coupled with government incentives for ownership of biodigesters, can empower women with control over these assets. This not only fosters a sense of ownership but also reinforces financial independence.
  4. Inclusive decision-making within families is crucial for success. Partnerships should not just advocate for women owning assets but also involve both spouses in the decision-making process. By highlighting biodigesters’ shared benefits and long-term cost savings, we aim to shift the perception of asset ownership, making it a collective family decision rather than one driven solely by financial considerations.

The value proposition of biodigesters for women dairy farmers remains clear. Yet, challenges persist in reaching more women due to deeply ingrained societal norms and financial dependencies. We must acknowledge these challenges and work collaboratively towards a more intentional, gender-sensitive approach. By adopting strategies that promote inclusive policies, tailored financial incentives, continuous awareness, and supportive infrastructure, we can ensure that the benefits of such projects are truly inclusive, reaching and empowering women in dairy farming.

Learn more about Accion Advisory and reach out if you want to learn more.

Accion Advisory team members visit Anitha, a dairy farmer and biodigester user in Kolar, Karnataka, India.

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