Biodiversity: a women’s business?

Women are among the fastest growing group of entrepreneurs in the world. What role do their burgeoning forest and farm businesses play in safeguarding biodiversity?

Anna Bolin's picture
Insight by 
Anna Bolin
Anna Bolin is a researcher in IIED’s Natural Resources research group
29 November 2018
Women champions of biodiversity
A series of blogs and interviews illustrating the role, influence and impact of women working to safeguard the world’s biodiversity
Baka women collecting non-timber forest products in Nomedjoh, Cameroon (Photo: Indra Van Gisbergen)

Baka women collecting non-timber forest products in Nomedjoh, Cameroon (Photo: Copyright Indra Van Gisbergen)

At least half of the 1.5 billion people who depend on forests for employment, forest products and livelihood support are women. But in national data sets, women’s economic activities in forest and farm landscapes are for the most part invisible – and often overlooked when it comes to policymaking. 

However, awareness of entrepreneurism among rural women is slowly growing. As part of our series of articles exploring women’s role in safeguarding biodiversity we look at women’s business pursuits in the forest and farm landscape.

Can profit-making and protecting biodiversity go together? 

Business interests rarely go fully hand-in-hand with conservation; there are often trade-offs. But there are some cases where business activities can complement and even strengthen conservation efforts, such as collecting and processing non-wood forest products (eg nuts, fruits, leaves, honey and oils).

In many rural communities, women and indigenous peoples use these products to build businesses selling household remedies, food and cosmetics. They use their traditional knowledge to manage the natural resources sustainably, meaning these products flourish, can be harvested and then flourish once more.

In this way, women and indigenous groups find that delicate balance of meeting their economic aspirations without compromising the forests’ rich biodiversity. 

Since 2014, IIED has been working in the Congo basin and globally with the Forest and Farm Facility (FFF) to support people, and particularly women, to develop their own locally controlled forest enterprises through a process called Market Analysis and Development (MA&D)

The MA&D training helps local forest users analyse and select forest products with the highest market potential. It guides them through a process of developing an enterprise development plan that puts in place economic, social and environmental strategies that allow both profit and sustainability goals to be met. In this way they engage in marketing for a wider range of forest products while ensuring forest resources are used sustainably by both women and men. 

In Myanmar, FFF helped establish the Myanmar Women’s Leadership and Conservation Network to advance women’s businesses within the country’s male-dominated Community Forest Product Producers Associations.

In Nepal, FFF has been supporting an alliance of forest and farm producer organisations, including the Federation of Nepal’s Cottage and Small Scale Industries, Central Women Entrepreneurs Committee and the Federation of Community Forestry Users Nepal to encourage the Ministry of Industry to support the Women Entrepreneurs Development Fund. This would give women the capital they need to expand their enterprises while managing their community forests in a way that is sustainable. 

In Cameroon, the CoNGOs project is supporting 10 women-led enterprises focusing on collecting and processing non-wood forest products, enabling women to organise and lead enterprise activities that help conserve the forests. 


But support to these enterprises can bring gender-related tensions. In Cameroon, the Moabi tree is nurtured by women and indigenous peoples for many household purposes – the bark is used to make medicine, the fruits for food, and oil is extracted from the seeds for cooking and for use in skincare cosmetics.

The moabi is a highly valued tropical hardwood; men fell the tree to sell it to traders, mainly for export (the wood is popular for making furniture). But over-harvesting means the moabi is becoming increasingly rare, giving rise to conflict between men and women.

Members of “Terre Promis” (Promised Land), in the north of the Dja Reserve in Cameroon, produce a variety of non-wood forest products for food and cosmetic production (soap and skincare) Photo (Tropical Forest and Rural Development)

The chair of the community forest in Nomedjoh village explained how the MA&D process has helped to resolve these tensions: “The moabi has been a real point of conflict in the village. The men wanted to cut the trees and the women wanted to keep them. The MA&D process is helping us develop marketing strategies to improve the profitability of the moabi products so that both women and men can benefit from the tree fairly.”

From forest to farm

Biodiversity protection extends beyond the forest landscape to the farm. Women are pivotal: in Kenya, women and men are growing trees on their farms to reduce water stress and make their farming more sustainable.

The government of Kenya has created incentives through the Farm Forestry Rules to promote and maintain farm-forest cover of at least 10% of every agricultural land holding. Land tenure arrangements can make this tricky for women as men tend to be the owners of the land, but women will be key in achieving this target.

To help them move up the agroforestry value chain, the Kenya government has increased support to women-led enterprises. Collaborations between women’s grassroots organisations such as GROOTS Kenya and Farm Forest Smallholder Production Association of Kenya empower women through enterprise development, support for timber production, establishing nurseries for indigenous tree species and eco-tourism. 

Worm and women power

In India, the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) organise around 1.2 million women entrepreneurs and smallholder farmers to practice sustainable farming and agroforestry. Through its network, SEWA supports women farm and forestry cooperatives to acquire land for agroforestry, produce vermicompost – where worms are used to turn organic waste into high quality compost – and practice organic cultivation.

SEWA member Shri Vanlaxmi Women’s Tree Growers is a cooperative covering 164 acres and 23 villages in Gujarat state, producing 23 tonnes of compost each month. It sells this to 18,500 farmers in Gujarat, Bihar, Rajasthan, Jammu and Kashmir, who now use vermicompost on their own farms because of SEWA’s promotional work. 

Scaling up support for women entrepreneurs has multiple benefits. It helps rebalance gender opportunities in the forest sector and in policy. It also increases understanding of these businesses and the important contributions they make for safeguarding biodiversity. 

This month’s UN biodiversity convention is setting in motion a process to agree new targets to halt the world’s alarming biodiversity loss. At the local level, women in forest and farm enterprises are already making very real contributions to this global push. Supporting their entrepreneurial spirit could not come at a more crucial time.