Feminization, agricultural transition and rural employment (FATE)

large cardamom
Large cardamom, Nepal. Photo: Sabin Bieri

FATE stands for Feminization, Agricultural Transition and Rural Employment. The project assesses the conditions under which the shift from self-sufficiency towards wage reliance enhances the capabilities of household members and their well-being, or, conversely, adds pressure on farming families as they opt out of subsistence and are pushed towards capital investment. Instead of gaining more choice – the implicit promise of development – smallholder farmers might risk losing their land and facing added dependency and vulnerability. In view of the dramatic transformations taking place in rural economies, we discuss the potentials these dynamics offer for rural labour markets, and to address the risks local men and women face as they engage in wage employment.


FATE draws on the capability approach to understand how the increasing commercialization of agriculture and the transformation of rural labour markets affect the men and women working in these markets. Our research framework combines within-case and cross-case perspectives. Quantitative and qualitative data are collected and analysed across four less developed, landlocked countries: Bolivia, Laos, Nepal, and Rwanda. By comparing the situations in these countries we aim, first, to understand what social and political conditions are needed to enable asset-building at the household level; and second, to identify barriers hindering people – particularly the more vulnerable groups – from escaping poverty.


The findings will feed into debates on the transformative power of economic change induced by globalization. FATE contributes to policy frameworks that aim to create not only jobs but also perspectives for sustainable development, notably for the poorer portions of developing societies. Transdisciplinary in nature, the project will provide evidence-based information for governance: knowledge that can inform negotiations of social justice in the context of agricultural transition and rural employment.

Quinoa farmers in Bolivia
Quinoa field, Bolivia. Photo: Sabin Bieri


The FATE project focuses on the production of export-led crops in four developing countries. The production of non-traditional agricultural exports such as delicate spices (ginger, cardamom) or nutritious grains (Quinoa) can generate wage labour and stimulate female employment in developing countries. These non-traditional export crops are usually both labour-intensive and high-value and often presented as the ideal pathway out of poverty, by having the potential to provide employment of the most vulnerable rural populations.

The project analyses the developmental impacts and gendered implications of the growth of export-led agriculture, with a focus on the effects on rural labour markets, wages and the quality of jobs. The research also seeks to identify the conditions under which this type of employment can contribute to asset accumulation, and enhanced well-being and capabilities, or, by contrast, greater dependency and vulnerability.

Quinoa in Bolivia


Quinoa in Bolivia Quinoa is a traditional grain that had a very high symbolic importance under the Inca empire. Almost forgotten, interest in this crop has been arising in the Western societies and its production in Bolivia exploded during the two last decades. Today, more than 80% of Bolivian Quinoa production is exported, although with undetermined social and environmental impacts.

Coffee in Laos

coffee beans

Coffee was introduced in Laos by the French in the early 1900s. Nowadays Laos produces more high quality coffee, especially Arabica and Catimor. The productions of coffee are located in the south of Laos, on the Boloven Plateau. Big companies and smallholders are both contributing to the industry of coffee.

Cardamom in Nepal

large cardamom

Large cardamom is a well-known spice that is used widely in oriental cooking and available in every supermarket in Europe and North America. In Nepal, an important share of the world large cardamom is produced in the Eastern Region.

Irish potatoes and beans in Rwanda


In Rwanda, the agricultural sector is developing from largely subsistence to market oriented production. Beans and Irish potatoes being traditionally produced for home consumption, have recently emerged to the local and regional markets. This is mostly the case in the Northern Province for some districts close to the borders with Uganda and Democratic Republic of Congo. For both crops, women are the most involved either as wage workers or self-employed.

Main results

PhD thesis by Patrick Illien

coffee beans

The Bittersweet Taste of “Miracle Growth”: A Political Economy Analysis of Poverty, Labour, and Economic Growth in the Coffee Heartlands of Laos and Rwanda

This thesis applied and compared the Multidimensional Poverty Index and the Extreme Deprivation Index, surveying hundreds of households in the coffee heartlands of Laos and Rwanda. The results show that the benefits of growth have been distributed unevenly and vulnerability is rising in both settings. A crucial reason are complex labour relations in the agricultural sector – including low wage levels, seasonal precarity, and disguised wage employment – which are often missed by conventional development interventions focused solely on land issues or crop-related extension services.

PhD thesis by Christine Bigler

Rwanda’s gendered rural labor market. When the social and economic transformations do not go simultaneously

This thesis uses a mixed-method approach to explore the agricultural transformation and sustainable development of the Rwandan highlands from a gender perspective. Thereby, it critically examines the widely held promise that the transformation of agriculture – from subsistence to market-oriented production – provides a way out of poverty thereby securing women’s and men’s wealth and well-being. The results of this thesis indicate that the agricultural sector is highly gendered, which translates into unequal distribution of constraints and opportunities of market-oriented agricultural production for women and men.

PhD thesis by Chantal Ingabire

Market participation and its effect on employment and food access within households of smallholder women farmers in Rwanda

This thesis examines the integration of smallholder households, in particular women, in the current marketing system and explores the drivers of market participation as well as its effect on food access and employment. While different drivers, such as land ownership, education, and access to infrastructure could support the commercialization of agriculture, women’s limited control over income and their increased workload were fundamental hindrances to households’ market participation. The findings further suggest that market participation is positively linked with households’ food access and on-farm employment.

PhD thesis by Sony K.C.

Agricultural transition in the Eastern Hills of Nepal: The interlink between commercial cardamom farming, women’s livelihood and empowerment

Working on commercial cardamom farming, this thesis examines the livelihoods of Nepalese women engaged in cardamom farming and asks about the factors leading to their empowerment. The findings indicate an improvement in farmers’ livelihoods and suggest that the engagement in cardamom production has empowered women financially and socially. However, the results also indicate that patriarchal structures still deprive women of having access to property and resources, which questions whether women are fully empowered.

PhD thesis by Maurice Tschopp

The Quinoa boom: Asset-building, commoditization, and cooperative contribution to natural resource governance

Using a mixed-methods approach, this thesis explores the various impacts of quinoa export markets on peasant communities’ livelihoods in Bolivia’s Southern Altiplano. For one, findings suggest that while the boom contributed to significant economic development in the region, it may also have increased inequalities between wealthier and poorer families. In addition, the quinoa boom challenged local peasant communities both in the governance of natural resources and in economic autonomy. Here, the thesis explores local adaptation strategies of local organizations to cope with these challenges.

See also here and here

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