Bhutan’s women farmers: growing income and food for their communities through agriculture

Written by Binai Lama, WFP Bhutan

Aum Kinzangmo, a farmer in rural Bhutan. Photo credit: Binai Lama

Aum Kinzangmo, 36, lives with her three children, husband, and her parents in the heart of Buli village in Bhutan’s Zhemgang Dzongkhag district. As a progressive farmer, Aum Kinzangmo cultivates a variety of vegetables in her 30 decimal kitchen garden. This enables her to earn a decent income by selling her produce to the nearby dratshang (monastic school), the local market, as well as the Buli Central School where her children are students. This income helps her meet her daily household expenses while also allowing her to save some money in her bank account.

Aum is one of the members of the “Buli Vegetable Group”, comprising of seven farmers working in 2.5 acres of combined land. The group cultivates a variety of vegetables across the seasons and works for the native seed preservation gene bank. Four of the seven farmers are women. In fact, some 86 percent of rural employed women are engaged in agriculture.

“I am very grateful for the Government’s contribution that not only has allowed us to improve our farm production but also helped us boost our living and earn income with selling of the produce,” says Aum, as she rakes in weeds and loosens the earth around her plants using a new hoe provided by the Government. “What matters the most is that I can look after my family members’ welfare while having no worries about what to eat for dinner tonight. Words are not enough to express my gratitude”.

The Economic Contingency Plan in Action

Photo credit: Binai Lama

Aum and the other farmers in the district were able to escalate their vegetable cultivation to a greater extent this year thanks to the funding and material support received from the agriculture component of the Economic Contingency Plan (ECP) fund that was set up in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. WFP supported the ECP, funding 95% of its budget for Zhemgang dzongkhag (district). The ECP was also funded by the Government of Canada.

Thanks to the ECP fund, participating farmers are provided with supplies such as hybrid vegetable seeds and agricultural equipment, along with practical trainings conducted by district extension officials and agriculture staff. These contributions helped farmers in multiple ways — while agricultural tools assisted farmers in reducing the irrigation shortage problem, hybrid seeds doubled the yield. The specialized tools and equipment also eased the physical labour for the farmers. This is especially beneficial for women farmers, given that their multiple responsibilities from childcare, household duties, to community work in addition to working in farms. The training sessions are also extremely useful in improving women farmers’ access to information and services.

While the primary objective of improving vegetable farming is to ensure that there is sufficient food for self-consumption, it is also crucial that the smallholder farmers earn a cash income via the sale of surplus produce. This additional income plays a significant role in ensuring that women’s labour is remunerated and that women farmers have access to cash, as well as helping support the safety and well-being of their families. This can help overcome barriers that women farmers face in raising their agricultural productivity and income.

Growing Optimism

Life as a woman smallholder farmer is not without its challenges. Human-wildlife conflict, harsh winters, and tough physical labour make women’s engagement in the agricultural sector a difficult path. However, thanks to initiatives like the ECP made possible due to the Royal Government of Bhutan, WFP, and their partners, Aum Kinzangmo and her fellow farmers are optimistic about the future.