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Grant Opportunity to Bring Permaculture Solutions to Women Farmers in the South

Sri Lankan household
Photo © Craig Mackintosh

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has, of course, a lot of resources at its disposal. Unfortunately it’s been shown that those resources have not always been utilised in ways that actually assist the people they purport to want to help. I’d like to believe that this disconnect is just due to ecological ineptitude, rather than impure motives, but it’s impossible for me to tell, or judge, from the swivel chair I’m sitting in. If I got rich from coding DOS, I’m sure I might also come to consider ‘technology’ as being the answer to all things, and, after a lifetime in offices, would probably also have a very limited understanding of the great biological ‘operating system’ — the interdependencies found within our biosphere, and the productivity that can be found in harnessing those interdependencies, instead of ignoring and overriding them and continuing to try to force functions.

But, today I want to highlight a grant opportunity offered by the foundation. It is an opportunity to showcase sensible, appropriate, productive design systems not only to the African farmers who desperately need to find better ways of working, but also to Gates Foundation members themselves. I dare to dream that the vast resources of the foundation could begin to leverage the work of permaculturists, rather than continuing to finance the spread of unnecessary biotechnology, etc. I would encourage lucid and experienced permaculturists — particularly those with documented successes in places like Africa and India — to read through this grant offer, and to do us proud….

Labor Saving Innovations for Women Smallholder Farmers — Grand Challenges Explorations Round 10,
September 2012


Three quarters of the world’s poorest people get their food and income from farming small plots of land – typically the size of a football field or smaller – and most of them labor under difficult conditions. In the developing world, the majority of these smallholder farmers are women. They grow a diversity of local crops and livestock species and must contend with pests, diseases and drought, along with unproductive soils and a lack of irrigation. Productivity on these plots in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) and South Asia is extremely low compared to the rest of the world, both in terms of yield and in terms of labor.

Low labor productivity undermines potential food production, stifles income growth from the lack of surplus and keeps many farming families impoverished, hungry and undernourished. Current demographic shifts driven by male outmigration to urban centers leave women with the burden of managing most farm and household chores. She and family members tending the farm need technologies that leverage what time she can devote to food production, as her day is likely already overfilled with a combination of caring for children and ill or infirm family members, and performing household tasks as well as farm tasks.1 Furthermore, she herself may be undernourished or ill, limiting her farming power.


Governments, the private sector, and the donor community have recognized the need to increase both land and labor productivity and have invested in many labor saving innovations for smallholder farmers for years. However, a complex and insidious mix of economic, social and technical issues has constrained widespread adoption of labor-saving innovations. To illustrate:

  • Technologies and tools have often been designed without sufficient farmer preferences and input in design. The particular needs of women farmers are generally ignored.
  • There has been a lack of consideration for local manufacturing, supply chain inputs and provision for maintenance. When technologies require repair, local blacksmiths cannot provide, parts, fabrication or repair services, and the tool becomes redundant while at the same time too costly to replace outright.
  • Demand for the intensification of agriculture and, in turn, for increasing labor productivity, is low in land abundant developing countries, as in many countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Studies suggest that consumer demand for innovations that save labor are more likely to be found in areas with high population density and a better enabling environment for agricultural production.2
  • Small farmer willingness and ability-to-pay for technologies or innovations are not well understood across regions. In some cases, the value proposition of women farmers “saving time” as a result of purchasing a labor-saving innovation is not a priority for male decision makers in the household.
  • In some cultural contexts, some labor-saving tools potentially available to women farmers (including draught power or tractor power) may be culturally inappropriate for her use. At the same time, demographic changes in rural areas may help loosen constraining cultural norms to allow more role flexibility in farm operations, thus some ideas may be worth revisiting.3

Specific examples of roadblocks to adoption of labor-saving innovations:

  • Tariffs on manufactured replacement parts can sometimes be incredibly costly, limiting farmers’ ability to pay for upkeep and maintenance.
  • The design of a treadle pump did not take into account the fact that women in many areas are culturally prohibited from riding bicycles; the motion of the treadle pump too closely resembled the motion of pedaling a bicycle, and women refused to adopt it. This was rectified through a more participatory design process involving women, resulting in a revised prototype.
  • Plough designs introduced in parts of Africa did not take into account women’s preferences and capabilities, and utilized draught animal species that women, according to cultural norms, could not use.
  • There remains a cultural taboo in many regions of sub-Saharan against standing upright during farming operations, in tasks such as weeding, because standing vertical is associated with lazy behavior. Thus attempts to introduce long handled hoes to women (to replace short-handled hoes which cause them to bend over during weeding) have been met with failure.


The aim of this call is to solicit innovative, holistic solutions to boost labor productivity of smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa with a specific emphasis on increasing the productivity of women farmers’ labor. We encourage researchers and entrepreneurs – especially those working outside of agricultural development – to review what has not worked in the past in order to better understand the various constraints to farmer adoption of labor saving innovations and to generate ideas that will revolutionize current approaches to crop protection, management and harvesting.

We certainly encourage new thinking in technical innovation in this space, and because many of the constraints to adoption of these innovations appear to be multi-disciplinary, we will also welcome innovation in – or across – all four areas of focus detailed below. Your submission may address one or more of these categories:

  1. New or adapted labor savings technologies that take into consideration cost, maintenance, upkeep and farmer needs in the design.
  2. Improved practices that save labor in land preparation, seeding, weeding, pest control, tillage, harvest and post-harvest.
  3. Business and/or distribution models that positively affect incentives for farmer adoption of labor saving devices.
  4. Educational or public awareness methods that tackle socio-cultural and/or gender constraints to adoption of labor saving innovations. This may include novel and low cost methods in marketing approaches for technologies that have demonstrated labor saving impact for women through piloting or beta testing.

What We Are Looking For:

To be considered, proposals must closely align with the goals and priorities of the foundation’s Agricultural Development team. As such, we are looking for ideas that:

  • Substantially increase the labor productivity of smallholder farmers in developing countries within the next 10-20 years;
  • Demonstrate an understanding of farmer preferences and needs — in particular women farmers’ unique and changing needs;
  • Target labor saving in the stages of the production system that are largely undertaken by human power and require significant human control: land preparation, weeding, pest control, seeding, tillage, harvest and post-harvest;
  • Have potential applicability to one or more of the following crops or livestock species: maize, wheat, rice, millet, sorghum, cassava, sweet potatoes, yams, beans, cowpeas, chickpeas, and groundnuts, cows, chickens, goats, or buffalo;
  • Are low cost, practical and can be fabricated in country and maintained/repaired locally;
  • Can be adapted to local context but also used broadly across regions, geographies and contexts; and
  • Convey a clear and testable hypothesis that explains how your innovation will decrease labor requirements and result in a high likelihood of adoption.

Proposals must (i) demonstrate how an understanding of farmers’ needs and perspective informed the design of the solution, (ii) include a basic plan that describes the manufacturing, delivery, upkeep and maintenance (if a physically engineered solution), and (iii) detail how usership and adoption will be measured over time.

A few examples of what we will consider for funding:

  • Development and in-country testing of low-cost hand implements or simple machines that increase labor productivity (this might include but is not limited to seeders, weeders, threshing and winnowing tools, and appropriate animal-powered machinery, all having innovative ergonomic or mechanical advantage);
  • Awareness campaigns targeting inefficiency of gender norms related to using draught power;
  • Novel practices or technologies that decrease labor expenditure for women in weeding row crops;
  • Innovative financing solutions to incentivize smallholder uptake of new labor saving innovations;
  • Other transformative labor-saving solutions not highlighted here.

We will not consider funding for:

  • Ideas that are not directly relevant to smallholder farmers in developing countries;
  • Ideas that are not applicable to the following crops or livestock species: maize, wheat, rice, millet, sorghum, cassava, sweet potatoes, yams, beans, cowpeas, chickpeas, groundnuts, cows, chickens, goats or buffalo;
  • Ideas that do not demonstrate a labor-saving effect;
  • Models that require long-term financial subsidies;
  • Machinery requiring more than 10 horsepower;
  • Treadle pumps;
  • Proposals either to develop novel pesticides or to promote the uptake of existing pesticides;
  • Marketing approaches that focus on an untested or inappropriate technology or innovation.

Also see their ‘Strategy Overview‘ (PDF). It’s interesting to note the almost apologetic tone in regards to GMOs in the FAQ section near the end of the PDF document. Just five years ago I think mention of GMOs in such a document would have been more unashamedly promotional of biotechnology — but the world is waking up…. I’d love to see the foundation realising that any investment in biotechnology is a complete misallocation and inefficient use of resources.

I hope applicants will keep in mind, however, that there are very real issues that go well beyond just differences in agricultural systems. The farmers need more practical ideas for making their lives more productive and easier, for sure, but the sharing of practical permaculture design systems and techniques (to supplement their own valuable but possibly unappreciated traditional wisdoms and skills) needs to go hand in hand with educating the big picture view also — so they are not simply lured into ‘increasing productivity’ to feed a globalised market system that only seeks to extract from them. A truly sustainable system will be biodiverse and provide a high degree of community interdependent self-reliance, but there are many who just see the faces of Africans and Indians, etc., as millions of new contributors to, and customers for, the present centralised, extractive, disaster of a system. There are far too many corporates who now look upon the African landscape, in particular, and see a land that’s just there to supply the needs of a western populace that has squandered, depleted and paved over its own agricultural wealth. Indeed, if we don’t get this part right, the ‘outmigration’ mentioned above, which sees all the men heading into urban centres, chasing cash, will only intensify and make the lot of the women who are the focus of this grant even worse. If we are seeking to help these people on a development path, then we must have a healthy definition of what it means to be ‘developed‘.

In short, this grant could potentially be a great opportunity for those with well articulated, appropriate solutions to see permaculture sanity leveraged on the ground as well as better understood and appreciated in the corridors of power.

If you’ve gotten to the bottom of this, and have worthy ideas just itching to get out, then please see the ‘Apply for a Grant’ section at top right of this page.


  1. Great opportunity Craig. For anyone looking to see what types of projects and technologies the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are already supporting, check out http:/ This project is run by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and funded by the Gates Foundation. Earlier this year we at Urban Feed Co were fortunate enough to be awarded prize money in a competition seeking to retro-fit black soldier fly technology to existing pit latrines:

  2. Hey Kim,

    That’s interesting, thanks for post. It didn’t really cross my mind at the time to consider whether it was dirty money. However, it crossed my mind constantly when I was recommended to apply for a grant from USAID. Ultimately I rationalized that the application was a good mental exercise, and that in reality, there was no sense in deliberating unless there was a decision to be made. The decision of whether or not to accept the grant would only arise if it was offered. Ultimately it was not, but I still benefitted from the exercise of having to visualize a term of 5 years and budget $500k. One thing that is nice with the challenges as opposed to a grant is that there are no stipulations as to how to use the money. Less money, but no strings attached. Here’s a challenge I think readers here might benefit from accepting: “Feeding the World in 2050 – What Challenges Will Agricultural Technologies Need to Meet?”

  3. This is a very good initiative worth a go by the Foundation. In Malawi, permaculture concepts also proves to be effective in contributing towards labour saving in women and improving climate change adaptation strategies. However, we have come to realise that these concepts are slowly being adapted by communities due to inadequate community education, and transfer of skills and knowledge. We therefore feel that our Organisation (Women for Fair Development-WOFAD) can contibute towards the scaling up of these efforts in the Malawi. Is it right for us to submit an application now? Is there going to be any call for proposals this time around?

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