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‘Women Are Feeding the World. Invest in Women!’ Says Marleen New, Heifer International

NGOs and GDOs are increasingly taking on the responsibility of implementing the gender equality and women’s empowerment agendas of the global development sector.

Heifer International is a global development organisation with a mission to end hunger and poverty while caring for the earth. It seeks to boost the livelihoods of small-holder farmers, helping them achieve a living income by providing training in sustainable farming and agriculture inputs as well as helping farmers gain access to the market. Another of its key missions is to help women develop leadership skills so that they can have access to greater opportunities such as education and entrepreneurship in the farming sector.

“Each farmer family agrees to ‘pass on’ the gifts they’ve received from the project to another family in their community. This ‘Pass on the Gift’ model not only enables the project to have a broader reach, it also allows our project participants to become donors. This is an incredible motivation!” says Marleen New, Vice President of Global Partnerships, Heifer.

Marleen leads and develops strategy for Heifer’s global team responsible for forging strategic partnerships and business development opportunities with corporations and other allies. She works to ascertain the needs of both the farmers and the private sector and identify ways for both parties to gain business value through pro-poor, wealth creating value chain opportunities. Marleen has also played a big part in the recent Hatching Hope Global Initiative carried out in cooperation with Cargill, aimed at improving the nutrition and economic livelihoods of 100 million people by 2030 through the production, promotion and consumption of poultry.

With the AgriBriefing Women in Food and Agriculture campaign ( in full motion, we were able to interview Marleen New and find out more on her views on gender equality and how personally invested she is in the empowerment of women in the agricultural sector.

“I came into the development sector after many years in the marketing and PR world. On Sept 11, 2001, I sat in the agency boardroom with colleagues, and we watched as the second plane hit the World Trade Centre. In that moment I knew life for me would never be the same,” Marleen confides. “Watching the horror unfold that day, I knew I needed to do something different, something that used my skills, life experience and passion to make a difference in the world – and provide a substantial and meaningful impact in some way.”

Marleen believes her career objectives are simple: “I want to be a significant contributor to the success of the organisation and to address the issues that personally matter to me. I want the work I do to make a difference. And I want to have the opportunity to mentor and encourage the younger women I encounter along the way.”

Unfortunately, Marleen hasn’t been witness to much change for women in the agriculture sector since has been a part of it.

“We work with small-holder farmers, and in that space, not much has changed for women. They have it very hard. In many places, women cannot own their own land, they don’t have access to bank accounts, and although women perform many of the tasks on-farm, the income is generally controlled by the male of the household. Women typically work 12-14 hours per week more than men, yet their contributions are unpaid. Some of this is due to culture and is hard to change,” she says.

“But it’s exciting to see places where women have been able to break those decades old traditions and find their voice. The women small-holder farmers I’ve met are fighting for their families and communities, they are selfless and are eager to share their knowledge with others. They are more creative than their male counterparts – optimising every spare inch of their farms. They give me hope and inspiration,” Marleen adds.

“There have been so many examples where I’ve seen women small-holder farmers grow and own their voice. These women inspire me. They have been born into a life of poverty in cultures where women are marginalised, and have no voice – and with encouragement, training and a hand-up they are changing their lives and their communities.”

One striking example of female willingness to succeed is Georgina Vasquez Perez, a young Mexican woman Marleen met recently.

“She isn’t letting anything stand in her way,” Marleen argues. “She received poultry and business and social capital training in a Heifer project and has become a leader in her community. I watched as she stood in front of a business meeting in Mexico City (men in suits!) and spoke eloquently and proudly about what she had been able to accomplish. She has built a small business and is able to support her family by selling eggs to a large restaurant chain in Mexico. I’ll never forget how she became emotional talking about how far she had come, by describing her opportunity as a blessing. I’m certain that Georgina is also illuminating the way forward for many others.”

Marleen also sat in women’s self-help groups listening to how pleased they were to be contributing to the financial needs of their families, and how proud they were to be able to support their husbands in the same way.

“It seems such a small thing, but the shift in the family dynamic when a woman has access to income is an incredible and exciting thing to witness. Suddenly she has a voice, she has control over household purchases, she becomes a valuable contributor to her family and the community,” Marleen explains.

The issue remains that agriculture is a predominately male-dominated industry, and in spite of progress made, Marleen argues there is still a ‘grass ceiling’.

“Women make up less than 25% of the C-suite in the food industry, and Board representation is even less than that. This is in spite of that fact that women make the majority of the food purchasing decisions. I know I struggle to be taken seriously at times – when most of the agriculture corporate executives I deal with are male.”

Though the gender equality issue is a big concern worldwide today and a willingness to change can be felt, Marleen can’t help but notice the lack of follow-up investment in the empowerment of women – be it in agriculture or elsewhere.

“I think the ‘Me Too’ movement has definitely brought this issue to the forefront, and women are owning their voices, but there is still a long way to go,” she says. Unfortunately, too many in power – mostly men – imagine that if women make gains, the existing power structures that are familiar, comfortable and lucrative will be jeopardised. As a result, entrenched systems are hard to change even though there are policies, and government resolutions, etc.”

This is even more alarming when you realise that the number of women head-of-household in farming communities is growing as a result of wars and migration by men to cities in search of work.

“For this reason alone it is becoming more important for businesses relying on agricultural products to invest in women,” Marleen stresses. “The majority of small-holder farmers are women, and small-holder farmers produce 80% of the developing world’s food. Women are feeding the world – we must invest in them.”

Marleen then turns the mic back to the industrial producers: “Invest in women! Support and invest in women farmer networks. It will pay off quicker than you think. If women had the same access to productive resources as men, they would increase yields on their farms by 20-30%. That’s an ROI that is definitely worth the investment. And if you really want to make a difference – if you are a coffee company, put a coffee farmer on your board, or a cocoa farmer if you’re a cocoa company. Even better, make it a woman farmer!”

Marleen New
Vice President of Global Partnerships
Heifer International

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