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Breaking stereotypes: How an international dev't practitioner empowers farmers in the Philippines

Honey Catherine Sobrevega has been in the development sector for over three decades. Her work spans on women-focused projects in different countries, all the way from Philippines, Bosnia, Eritrea, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Northern Ghana, and Myanmar. Catherine has taken on many leadership roles in various cultures and enabled her to see how women live in a multicultural lens, deepening her understanding on gender projects, and developing her propensity to empower women across the globe.

“Being posted in different countries, I learned that we need more women in leadership positions. Especially in the agriculture sector, it’s important that we have more women leaders, because it opens up more opportunities for our women farmers to thrive.”

Catherine has been with Mennonite Economic Development Associates (MEDA), an economic development organization specializing in providing business solutions to eradicate poverty, for 15 years. She has spent several years helping women abroad. Now, she is back in the Philippines, supporting farmers in Mindanao as MEDA Philippine’s Country Director.

Women lead

Balancing motherhood and Catherine’s career was not an easy task. There were times when she had to be away from her family and instances when she would bring her children to work. Eventually, her hard work paid off. Her work would later bring her to countries like Afghanistan, where gender equality and women empowerment was a big challenge.

“In Afghanistan, arranged marriages are very common. The father usually decides that their daughters need to marry to improve their situation. I realized it’s not marriage that can help them, it’s having an education that will open opportunities for them to work and earn their own money. In such a conflict-prone setting, women having economic independence is equivalent to enabling them to protect themselves.”

But being a female leader in countries where the gender gap is high was not an easy journey. Different cultural contexts also come into play and can affect workplace relationships. Catherine recalls an experience with a former colleague who wouldn’t recognize her leadership role because of her gender.

“In Ghana, I had a hard time because I had a staff who was not used to having a female boss. He would avoid attending events where we were both invited because he doesn’t want others to know that his boss is a woman.”

This only encouraged Catherine to work harder so she can be a better representation of women. She made it her goal to normalize women in leadership positions.

“I want to make it known that it’s not only the men who are capable of leading. Women can take on motherhood while making an impact on their communities.”

Driving inclusion through information

One of the biggest lessons that Catherine has learned throughout her career is the importance of access to information and its potential to empower Filipino farmers.

“No matter how great the intention behind a project when it is not properly communicated, the farmers cannot benefit from it. It’s important to make sure that they can understand it, especially the women, so they can participate and make an impact.”

Catherine shares one of MEDA’s projects for women farmers aim to provide them with agricultural extension services to stimulate their minds. She believes that giving women opportunities to participate in capacity building training is a good investment because it helps improve their livelihood.

“Women farmers share what they learned from the learning sessions to their family remembers. Together, they get to apply what they learned in their farms.”

Catherine reiterates the importance of information in agricultural projects, and ensuring that these are properly communicated to the farmers so they can internalize the cause behind it and learn how they can get involved.

“In Ghana we worked on a simple technology called Talking Book where we record our training and translate it to the local language. Then we give that to the female leaders and they listen to it in their homes, and when they meet their members they listen to it together. When they come together, they are more empowered.”

The opportunity in cacao

Now back in the Philippines, Catherine and her team in MEDA Philippines are focusing on the cacao sector. While cacao is a high value crop and demand from domestic and export markets are increasing, the Philippine cacao industry is still struggling to meet the demands due to low productivity and gaps faced by cacao farmers.

Photo credit: MEDA

“We saw that some processors have problems securing supplies of cacao beans. The farmers on the other hand lack access to markets. There’s a gap between the demand and the supply. We saw that this is an industry where MEDA can make an impact in the Philippines.”

MEDA’s area of focus is Davao and the BARMM regions. While Mindanao and the BARMM region has a high incidence of poverty, these regions are one of the country’s top producers of cacao and present great economic opportunities in the sector. MEDA’s role is to convene these value chain players so they can help each other.

Through the Resilience and Inclusion through Investment for Sustainable Agrikultura (RIISA) Project funded by the Embassy of Canada in the Philippines, MEDA is seeking to build more gender-inclusive, sustainable livelihoods and profitable agri-businesses by directly supporting 5,400 smallholder farmers (40% are women) and indirectly support 35,000 women and men small-scale farmers thru the cooperatives, associations, public institutions and small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in the cacao sector.

Photo credit: MEDA

By engaging, establishing partnerships, and providing technical support for diverse actors in the agri-food market system, the project hopes to strengthen the cacao sector and create more sustainable livelihoods for Mindanao women and men farmers.

Catherine also highlights the need to support cooperatives and businesses that have the potential to become impact investors who can benefit the farmers, while incorporating sustainable and inclusive practices.

“MEDA offers a wraparound support focusing on supporting smallholder cacao farmers to increase their income and improve their livelihoods through cooperatives and businesses who can help. So we support them by working with Business Service Providers (BSPs) in assessing what needs to be improved to make their business more sustainable for the environment or inclusive by including women in their supply chain and market.”

Photo credit: MEDA

Catherine also believes in promoting income diversification so that farmers have other sources of livelihood while waiting for the harvest of cacao. This way, farmers can have a steady income while taking care of their cacao trees. She wishes to strengthen the sectors through a systems change where all members of the value chain have equal opportunities.

“In our partnership with PPSA, I am most excited about our learning agendas that we can develop and share with stakeholders involved. By having this platform, cacao farmers can express their concerns and we get to see opportunities to work with them.”

Helping women succeed

Catherine is grateful to the women in her life that empowered her to take up space and to own her success. She attributes this to her mentors who shaped her to become a better leader.

“I wouldn’t be able to get to where I am now without the help of my supervisors. Being a working mom is not easy and they really supported me when my children were growing up.”

She owes it to their influence that she also learned to empower her staff. She recalls one of the most memorable experiences throughout her career was when they installed breastfeeding rooms to their office in Afghanistan.

“We hired a teacher and caretaker so the women can bring their children to the office. They would let their children sleep, they would breastfeed, then go back to work. So I really saw how women were able to shine while juggling having a family.”

Catherine believes that women should not be boxed into one role because they are capable of doing more. That is why she thinks that workplaces need to support women more.

“Women are allowed to have a career and be a mother at the same time. It inspires us to work even harder to make sure our children can grow up successfully, while we make an impact on our communities.”


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