Empowering Women in the Supply Chain

Interview with Primark, Unilever Global Development Award Finalist

Empowering Women in the Supply Chain

Primark is a Finalist in the Unilever Global Development Award supported by Business Fights Poverty.

We asked them some questions about their programme and the lessons learnt.

Q) What challenge does Primark’s programme serve to change?

Like almost every other fashion retailer, Primark products are made in countries like India where wages are lower and factories are closer to raw materials. Cotton makes up a large proportion of our garments. Typically cotton is grown in low-income countries on small farms where knowledge of environmentally friendly practices and the benefit they can bring to them and their families is limited.

We set up this programme to train farmers about how to optimise conditions for increasing yields so they generate increased income through environmentally sustainable methods. We decided to target female smallholders as they are a minority group with little or no access to training. The aim was to improve their livelihoods, empowering them and helping to narrow the gender inequality gap in their community, whilst benefitting the environment and the wider community through the adoption of more sustainable farming methods.

Q) Can you give us an overview of the programme?

In 2013 Primark used its relationships to bring together agricultural experts, CottonConnect, and the Self-Employed Women’s Association to create ‘Primark’s Sustainable Cotton Programme’, a unique three year partnership that trained 1,251 female smallholder farmers in India through classroom sessions, in-field training and learning groups to produce more environmentally sustainable cotton, increase cotton quality and improve their livelihoods by increasing their income.

Working with partners, farmers were trained on the most appropriate farming techniques for their land, from seed selection, sowing, soil, water, pesticide and pest management, to picking, fibre quality, grading and storage of the harvested cotton. The training also covered health and safety, and working conditions.

The training focused on techniques that make conditions optimal for increasing their yields and/or producing better quality cotton, and through education encouraging the smallholders to adopt these techniques to reduce the overall environmental impact of the cotton they grow.

As the training has progressed we have seen increased engagement levels with the farmers and their families. Their confidence and desire to learn has grown, motivated by an increase in income and a decrease in input costs, and the training has been embedded into their working practices, reducing the environmental impact of their work.

The farmers have adopted more sustainable farming methods, reducing the environmental impact of their work – reduced overall water usage, over a 10% reduction in fertiliser used and over a 50% reduction in pesticide used. Their yield has increased by over 11% and income by 176% in year one and 211% in year two. In many cases these women are now the main breadwinners of the home, and have used their increased profits to support their families, educate their children or improve their housing and lifestyle. The farmers have also engaged with non-programme farmers to share knowledge and techniques, spreading best practice.

Q) How did Primark leverage partnerships to make this programme stronger?

We recognised that to have maximum impact, the programme needed to be delivered by experts on the ground with the local knowledge and expertise required to engage with smallholders and their families. These experts were also best placed to continually evaluate and measure the impact of the programme.

We have been working both with the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) and agricultural specialists, CottonConnect. Dedicated field teams from our partners are based permanently on the ground to implement the programme. SEWA brought to this partnership a strong relationship with the local community and especially importantly, was their ability to connect with female smallholders. SEWA’s relationships within these communities allowed us to organise village level meetings to engage with village elders and male family members to seek their support in the active participation of the female smallholders from their households. We were also able to leverage SEWA’s position on the ground to ensure that males were included within the programme to ensure their continued support.

Q) What has been the impact of this programme?

The training has helped the farmers to increase their yields, improve the quality of their cotton, reduce the environmental impact of their farms and ultimately grow their livelihoods. The farmers’ income increased by 176% in year one of the programme, and by 211% in year two. One programme farmer, Varsha, who has been farming for over 25 years said, “Everything I knew about agriculture was blind, but from the knowledge I have got, yields and my income has gone up and I am able to enjoy a better livelihood.”

This programme has made the women both agriculturally and socially active, their voices are now heard and respected and they are now part of the decision making process with their families and communities, a real cultural shift.

We found that the males in the farmers’ communities were initially sceptical, but the programme engaged with them, and kept them updated through regular meetings. In light of the results, the males’ acceptance and support for this programme has grown exponentially.

The programme gives Primark a valuable insight into the cotton supply chain, and directly into the lives of the smallholder cotton farmers. It has been so successful that Primark has extended the programme for another six years. It will train 10,000 more female smallholder farmers and provide additional business skills training to those already trained.

Editor’s Note:

The Unilever Global Development Award winner will be announced at the Annual Responsible Business Gala on 11 July. For live updates from the winners please follow#BITCawards.

For more information about the Business in the Community Awards please see


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