There is widespread belief that small-scale farming is the sustainable and equitable solution to solving the crises of hunger and poverty in developing countries. For an international development course last semester, I reviewed Roger Thurow’s The Last Hunger Season, a journalistic account of how small-scale farming improved the lives of four farmers in rural villages in western Kenya. One Acre Fund, one of the leading NGOs working to support smallholder farmers, was also prominently featured in the book. Even corporations like Walmart recognize that individual farmers are a significant part of its supply chain strategy and recently announced that it will be working with USAID to help train 135,000 farmers in Kenya, Rwanda, and Zambia to grow food to be sold in its stores.
In Mongolia, however, small-scale farming serves a different purpose. This summer, I am assisting with the qualitative evaluation of the Mongolian Women Farmers Association (MWFA), a community-based nonprofit that trains low-income women in organic, small-scale urban farming. Speaking to MWFA’s beneficiaries in the Nailakh and Bayanzurkh ger districts (informal settlements encircling the capital city, Ulaanbaatar) taught me that in Mongolia, small-scale agriculture is not so much the solution to hunger and poverty as it is an opportunity to improve women’s social status and promote better nutrition.
As I’ve written in a previous post, Mongolia still has to overcome gender disparities, particularly in the labor sector. MWFA encourages entrepreneurship and financial independence by training women to grow and sell organic vegetables and, with support from The Asia Foundation, also facilitates basic business training and connects women farmers to viable markets. According to community leader, agronomist, and MWFA founder, Mrs. Byatshandaa, family cohesion and women’s social status are also enhanced when women are empowered to earn a living.
Promoting healthier diets is another important outcome of small-scale vegetable farming. Because Mongolian cuisine is mainly based on the traditional nomadic way of life, it primarily consists of meat and dairy products. Vegetables are rarely used, and when they are, only as a side ingredient rather than a main dish. Additionally, fruits and vegetables are mainly imported from Russia or China, making them more expensive and of mediocre quality. By making fresh vegetables more readily available, MWFA farmers are helping promote more balanced diets not only in their households but in local communities as well.
While small in scope, programs like MWFA have huge potential in bringing about positive, long-term behavioral and social changes that will improve the lives of women and families.