What began as a new business strategy for improving sales of agriculture products in rural areas of Indonesia, has morphed into a successful case study of women’s economic empowerment in the agriculture sector.
The Australia-Indonesia Partnership for Promoting Rural Incomes through Support for Markets in Agriculture (PRISMA) developed and implemented a sales agent model with several partner businesses, supporting the recruitment and training of both men and women as direct sales agents.
Right away, the team noticed that the women sales agents performed far better than the men in some cases. PRISMA commissioned research on the sales agents and the direct sales model to understand the factors contributing to it and its female sales agents' growth. The research findings were recently published in PRISMA’s report Direct Sales Agent Research: Women Agents Insights and Recommendations.
Goetz Ebbecke, PRISMA CEO, notes the importance of the program’s findings and the need to break down gender barriers in the Indonesian agriculture sector where women are often forgotten but nonetheless key players.
“Thinking of farmers as ‘men only’ is limiting. Women and men both determine how families fare equally in all our lives,” he says. “By not addressing women’s preferences in agriculture marketing, teaching, and coaching, businesses risk missing a valuable market segment.”
In addition to performance, PRISMA found that the women sales agents also gained invaluable skills and confidence around their economic agency. Ebecke adds that the field studies overwhelmingly “show a clear preference for women receiving agriculture information and training from other women.’’
More Than a Job
Like many women around the world, the Indonesian sales agents, especially the married and single mothers, juggle a myriad of family responsibilities on top of their work. Many reported their willingness to work overtime and on weekends to compensate for the time they used during the day to take care of their families, effectively putting their needs and desires last on their priorities list.
Despite these hardships, women in the study reported that their work as a sales agent was far more than just a job. It provided an opportunity to increase their self-esteem and feel empowered to pursue a life of purpose.
For many women, it was an opportunity to both prove themselves and contribute to their family’s well-being.
“I want to feel useful and productive,” reported one sales agent. “I don’t want to be passive and just wait for my husband to give me money. I can also do something beneficial.”
Though the title is sales agent, the role encompassed much more. Many women also master the role of analyst, advisor, marketer and distributor while working with various people in their communities, from farmers and breeders, to corporations. The role's complexity has allowed women to flex and hone skills they may not have used before, allowing them to grow and develop both professionally and personally.
PRISMA’s study also showed that 91 per cent of farmers who interacted with a female sales agent actually applied the training they received, a full 6 points higher than those who interacted with their male counterparts. More than half (60 per cent) of women farmers reported that they preferred female agents as their source for promotional and agricultural best practice information.
Maryam Piracha, Portfolio Adviser Gender Equality and Social Inclusion for PRISMA adds that on top of the report’s findings on women’s success in the role, they also proved to be resilient in the face of COVID-19 setbacks.
“Our rapid assessment on the impact of COVID-19 on women sales agents shows that women are resilient in finding ways to cope with COVID-19 challenges and continue to perform their roles even during the pandemic from home,” she notes.
“While there is room for improvement, this is a strong indication of how well women have been integrated into core business strategies for these companies.’’
For many women hired as a sales agent through PRISMA’s partnership programs, the role provided a steady income source, a chance to develop new relationships and networks, and an opportunity to seek self-fulfilment. Many of these women also serve as role models for family members and the greater community.
“I want to prove to my daughter that I am a strong woman. Even though I am a widow, I manage everything myself. So, someday when she grows up, she’ll never underestimate women” another sales agent reported.
The findings from PRISMA’s study are crucial for designing more inclusive and sustainable business models in Indonesia. This can ensure the ability to ‘build back better’ by including more women in business strategies and interventions.
Piracha adds that the study can help businesses that want to build women’s economic empowerment into their strategies.
“The study helped deepen our understanding of how businesses can improve recruitment and training strategies to provide a more conducive environment for women sales agents to thrive,” she says. “These are valuable insights not only for our current business partners but also for other agri-businesses that may be on the cusp of investing in more inclusive workforces.”
For more information and studies on women agents, visit PRISMA at https://aip-prisma.or.id/en.