Agriculture remains one of the most important sources of livelihoods for many Bhutanese, especially women. However, it is performed on scattered and scarce arable land on steep and moderate slopes threatened by landslides, erosion, and uncertain rainfall patterns. The 2020 labour force survey of Bhutan highlights that 58.8 percent of women work in agriculture, forestry, and fishery, and that their work burdens are particularly heavy with the addition of household and community work requirements. For instance, the loss of soil fertility and forest degradation have increased the time women need to dedicate to fuelwood collection (NDP Gender Assessment Bhutan 2019). Women are also responsible for most of the unpaid labour for transporting construction materials.
Rural migration has also caused labour shortages, and women have been left behind (Bhutan Gender Equality Diagnostic of Selected Sectors (ADB 2014) and compelled to take on tasks traditionally taken on by men.
All in all, despite being important contributors to the labour force in agriculture, rural women are directly affected by the challenges associated with this sector in terms of low productivity, limited technology adoption, labour shortages, and poor market access. This translates into vulnerable livelihoods and high drudgery for women farmers.
Small-scale agricultural mechanisation for reducing drudgery benefits and barriers
Limited access to agricultural mechanisation has been identified as a barrier for improving agricultural productivity and move from subsistence to market-oriented farming. Moreover, small-scale mechanisation adapted to women’s needs can bring multiple benefits. These benefits encompass reducing women’s drudgery, addressing labour shortages, increased efficiency in the use of inputs and operations, and enhancing the resilience of agriculture to deal with climate shocks. For instance, studies carried out in Bhutan show that a power tiller for land preparation can reduce the labour requirement from 90 days/acre to 20 days/acre. A study carried out by FAO and the World Bank suggested that improved access to mechanized maize shellers, rice threshers, and labour saving-technologies for food processing and storage are required to reduce women’s drudgery.
Lack of access to labour-saving technologies and the most basic of farm tools continues to compromise the productivity and wellbeing of many women smallholders in the mountains. Based on research and case studies, FAO (2015) highlighted the main gender-based constraints affecting access to mechanization. In 2019, the Resilient Mountain Solutions (RMS) Initiative of the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) organized a regional consultation in Nepal to explore the barriers and opportunities to introducing customized technologies to meet the needs of women farmers in the Hindu Kush Himalayan region. The main barriers that were identified were the lack of customized machines and equipment for women, limited access to finance, inadequate institutional support, and restrictive social norms. It also noted that there was limited monitoring of the impacts of technology on women’s livelihoods and welfare.
Targeted policies and extension services
Recognising the constraints mentioned above, over the last five years, the Department of Agriculture has brought an additional 10,982 acres of land under farm mechanization. As part of the recently approved 12th Five Year Plan 2018-2023 (2019), an additional 6746 acres will be brought under farm mechanisation, reducing farm drudgery and labour costs through supply of gender-friendly and geographically suitable farm machinery.
The government has also invested in making the agriculture sector resilient to climate change through a range of climate-smart farming technologies such as drip and other piped irrigation to address water stress and drought; adoption of innovative management practices; organic farming; development of pest/disease and stress-tolerant varieties and improved soil fertility (nutrient management) to ensure increased productivity even during the incidences of severe drought, erratic rainfall, and new pest and disease outbreaks.
The Farm Machinery Corporation Limited (FMCL), a state-owned company, was established for providing various services such as sale and supply of farm machinery and labour-saving tools; repair and maintenance; farm machinery hiring services; and, the installation and testing of stationary machines to customers. Farm mechanization certainly entails more than the supply of machinery and labour-saving tools and implements. It foresees the institutionalisation and development of capacities along the entire value chain from supply to after sales services. There are a set of skills needed to operate, maintain, and repair these technologies. Machinery operators, mechanics and suppliers of small-scale mechanization need to be locally available to allow the mechanization interventions to be sustainable over time. Apart from the skills and actors needed for the promotion of agricultural mechanization, there is also the limitation on the purchasing capacity and access to finance of smallholder farmers, including women. In the mountains, the barriers described may be more important due to inaccessibility and lack of electricity. Therefore, farm machinery hiring services have to be strengthened to reduce farm labour shortage, enhance the efficiency of farming and increase agricultural production. Experience from the last century shows that the private sector is critical for the operation and management of mechanization supply chains and services whereas the Government can play a critical role in capacity building, policy, and programme development.
A focus on smallholder women farmers
Government policies and programmes must promote and develop mechanisation in the agricultural sector and disseminate customised, accessible, and affordable tools and technologies that address the needs of smallholder women farmers in the hills and mountains. The policy environment should support the particular needs of mountain women farmers, recognize their vulnerabilities, and seek their views and take into account their mechanization needs when programmes are formulated and rolled out. It is also important that the technological innovations are adapted to the diversity of local contexts and that the impacts of technology introduction on gender relations at household and community level are evaluated. Policymakers and development agencies working on mountain agriculture must also recognize the additional burden from climate variability as well as changes in the social context induced by the outmigration of men.
As a starting point, there is an urgent need to assess the status of agricultural mechanisation in Bhutan and review the institutional capacity to adapt technology to women’s needs, assist the buying/rental of machinery through subsidies, assess the capacities of support services, and facilitate a role for the private sector in making these technologies and services more accessible.
Sustainable mechanisation for women farmers
Given this background, the RMS Initiative at ICIMOD, together with Food and Agriculture Organization (UN-FAO) have launched this webinar series. Consultations for Nepal took place on 5 March 2021, and similar will take place early May in Bhutan where government officials, development organisations and practitioners will come together to discuss opportunities and constraints in facilitating women’s access to agricultural mechanization.
With women already shouldering a disproportionate amount of responsibility in day-to-day domestic and community life, let us hope that the introduction of simple tools and machinery for agriculture will reduce their drudgery and help in increasing farm productivity at the same time.
Contributed by Flavia Grassi and
Mayling Flores Rojas