Understanding the Gender Dynamics of VBA Impact in Burkina Faso and Nigeria
Across Africa, smallholder farmers form the backbone of countless communities, producing crops and contributing to their local economies. To thrive, however, they need access to support, guidance, and resources. This is where the role of Village Based Agents (VBAs) becomes pivotal. AGRA, an organization striving to build a sustainable agricultural economy in Africa, partners with various institutions on the continent to identify and train VBAs to provide advice, resources, and market connections to small-scale producers—thereby bridging the extension gap while ensuring access to critical services.
Supporting AGRA’s VBA program, the Impacting Gender & Nutrition through Innovative Technical Exchange in Agriculture (IGNITE) project conducted a series of studies led by 60 Decibels (60dB) to understand the success of VBAs. (IGNITE, a program implemented by Tanager, Laterite, and 60 Decibels, is a technical assistance mechanism designed to identify models that demonstrate ways of increasing both the equitable consumption of affordable, nutritious diets year-round and empowering women in agriculture.) The surveys specifically analyzed the distinct experiences of male and female farmers to unpack how organizations can continue to empower women to thrive in the agriculture sector.
Study 1: A Closer Look at Nigerian VBAs
The first study, conducted in Nigeria, focused on the experiences of 301 recently trained VBAs in their first season. The findings provided a baseline understanding of various aspects of the VBAs’ starting point, including their previous work history, motivations, the effectiveness of training, and their experiences while working with farmers.
- High satisfaction and clarity: Satisfaction with the program is high among the VBAs, with a Net Promoter Score (NPS) of 61. This level of satisfaction stems from access to agricultural training, increased knowledge, and access to farm inputs.
- Effective training: Most VBAs found the training they received to be timely and effective, with nearly 8 in 10 considering it easy to understand and apply lessons learned. Practical methods used to teach VBAs and a well-structured training program contributed to this success.
- Female empowerment: Most female VBAs are accessing such a role or training for the first time. Roughly 4 in 5 female VBAs did not have previous experience in a similar role, and more than 3 in 5 did not have prior access to agriculture training. Despite the learning curve, existing female VBAs felt motivated to be trained as VBAs to help farmers and their communities. They showed a preference for serving female farmers, and were more likely to provide nutritional training, indicating the potential benefits of recruiting more female VBAs.
- Gender preferences: VBAs, in general, tend to prefer serving farmers of the same gender as themselves. One in 3 have a gender preference for the farmers they serve; of this group, 67% of male VBAs prefer to work with male farmers, and 85% of female VBAs prefer to work with female farmers.
This study enabled the AGRA to delve deeper into the profiles and experiences of VBAs, working to better understand their motivations.
Strategy 3.0 of AGRA focuses more on both gender and nutrition, crosscutting all interventions. And, thanks to the results of this study, in extension systems AGRA has put a more intentional focus on increasing the number of female VBAs where possible, and including their spouses in communities where this is more difficult.
Study 2: VBA Profiles and Their Motivations
The second study delves into the archetypes of VBAs, drawing from the previous research conducted in Nigeria. The aim of the archetypes study was to identify which agents had the most significant impact on farmers and operated at scale.
Through interviews with 713 VBAs in Nigeria and 313 VBAs in Burkina Faso, three distinct VBA archetypes emerged:
- Emerging Rural VBAs: These are younger (30 years old or younger) agents with secondary education and a strong agricultural background. They enter the role with some prior work experience and high agricultural knowledge.
- Urban Income-focused VBAs: Aged between 30 and 45, these agents are fairly educated with post-secondary schooling. They are less agriculturally minded, but excel in serving farmers at scale.
- Established Rural VBAs: Older in age (45 years or older) and less educated, these VBAs live in rural villages and have a deep agricultural background. Most of them were already earning income from agriculture before becoming VBAs.
Across the board, VBAs are keen to improve their own agricultural skills, taking what they learn and applying it on their own farms. Differences emerge, however, when evaluating the number of farmers served and motivations for becoming VBAs.
- Career goals: Forty nine percent of all VBAs have a career goal related to commercial agriculture or increased crop and livestock productivity. Nigerian VBAs (48%) and male VBAs (54%) are more likely to have goals related to commercial agriculture compared to their respective counterparts.
- Motivation differences lead to performance differences: Established Rural VBAs are more motivated by agricultural knowledge than the other younger, more urban archetype peers. Ninety-two percent of Established Rural VBAs are motivated by agricultural knowledge, compared to 75% of Emerging Rural VBAs and 67% of Urban Income-focused VBAs. VBAs motivated by agricultural knowledge serve on average 135 farmers compared to 99 farmers for those not agriculturally motivated. These VBAs are also more likely to say that helping farmers gain access to inputs (67%) and credit (64%) are the “most important” aspects of their role.
- Education levels matter: Higher levels of education enable VBAs to apply more of their training on their farm. Three in 5 VBAs with post-secondary education are applying “all” training, compared to 2 in 5 VBAs with secondary or primary education. Among VBA archetypes, Emerging Rural VBAs are more likely to apply training on their farm. This is unsurprising given they have higher levels of education than Established VBAs and are more agriculturally focused than their Urban Income-focused peers.
- Income increases: Nine in 10 VBAs say their income has increased since becoming a VBA, with 57% saying it has “very much increased.” Those applying “all” (62%) of their training to their personal farm report more significant increases compared to those applying “most” (52%) or “some” (51%). VBAs applying all their training are more likely to say their income has increased by double or more since becoming a VBA. These results suggest that AGRA’s impact on income sustainability is driven in large part by VBA’s personal agricultural improvements.
Given these findings, AGRA is increasing the entrepreneurial capacity building of VBAs and fostering linkages to both the private and public sector to ensure the sustainability of their programs. The focus is to create a critical mass of youth providing effective services to farmers not only on farms but also throughout the food system.
Study 3: Follow-up from First Study After 6 Months
60 Decibels called the same sample of VBAs in Nigeria from the first study 6 months later to understand how their experiences have changed over time. This final study reveals that AGRA’s impact on the lives of VBAs has been overwhelmingly positive, with improvements in their income, farms, and households.
- VBAs are satisfied: The excellent Net Promoter Score® is slightly above the first survey, at 63, and is in the highest performing quintile of 60dB’s Farmer Benchmarks. VBA satisfaction is driven by learning new farming methods, contributing to their community, and access to farm resources. Ninety-four percent are “very likely” to continue working as a VBA a year from now. These trends are similar for both male and female VBAs.are ‘very likely’ to continue working as a VBA a year from now. These trends are similar for both male and female VBAs.
- Better job performance leads to higher incomes: Showing improvement in most job-related skills, 95% of VBAs reported that their knowledge of agriculture has “very much improved.” More than 9 in 10 VBAs reported an increase in money earned, and almost all cite an increase in farm yield sold as the driver for this. Nine in 10 also reported increased savings, and 8 in 10 reported reduced financial stress.
- Stronger networks for both men and women: Ninety-one percent of VBAs are offering additional services to the farmers they serve at follow-up, compared to 64% at baseline. They can do this due to the networks they have formed—59% reported making new connections since starting work as a VBA. This trend is similar for both male and female VBAs, despite male VBAs having more prior experience in the agricultural space. This highlights the additional opportunities AGRA is helping catalyze for new VBAs and AGRA’s success at helping new people make inroads in the agricultural space.
AGRA’s VBA program is outperforming the 60dB Agriculture Benchmark across every metric. The study highlights the impacts of the VBA work in reaching smallholder farmers with knowledge, inputs, and access to markets, thereby strengthening the extension systems. The nuances between male and female VBAs will help shape the next strategy of AGRA on the VBA work, with a stronger focus on gender and nutrition. This program boasts strong results for both VBAs and smallholder farmers, suggesting that this model can become a key part of the knowledge dissemination chain throughout Africa.
As these studies show, gender-nuanced research helps agricultural institutions across Africa customize programming to ensure the needs of women involved across the agricultural value chain are appropriately addressed.