Keithlin Caroo is the founder of Saint Lucian non-profit Helen’s Daughters. Helen’s Daughters was formed in 2016 in a winning proposal for UN Women’s Empower Women Champions for Change Program.
Helen’s Daughters is a social enterprise that directly connects rural female farmers to the hotel industry. It was born out of the belief that there was a need to support rural women with the use of adaptive agricultural techniques, capacity building and improved market access.
For St. Lucia, formerly known as the ‘banana capital’ of the Caribbean for its ‘green gold’ – which contributed $187m to the St Lucian economy – the banana crash of the late 1990s early 2000s had a devastating impact on every farmer regardless of gender. Nevertheless, as a result of the perception that farming was male-oriented and women farmers played an insignificant role in the St. Lucian agricultural landscape, initiatives that were brought forth to reinvent the market only included male farmers. Yet, in the Castries Market, (the capital of St. Lucia and the largest produce market on the island) 90% of the vendors are women, and, in most cases, these women are both producers and vendors. This misperception has essentially blocked female farmers out of commercial markets and in some instances, female farmers are selling produce to bigger companies under the name of a male relative or spouse, as they do not have the requisite certifications. This gender disparity is not only present in the agricultural context but extends to the overall St. Lucian labour force. The rate of unemployment in St. Lucia amongst women (24.7%) is slightly higher than that of men (20.1%) and women, many of whom are in the agricultural sector, own two-thirds of small businesses in St. Lucia.
To leverage the use of digital agriculture while empowering rural women to fill gaps in the agri-food-tourism system, Helen’s Daughters, in collaboration with the University of British Columbia (UBC), is providing women farmers with soil sensors that transmit environmental data (light, soil moisture, ground and surface temperature) based on the farmer’s plot of land. This data collected by the soil sensors is visualised on an online dashboard that monitors the plots of each farmer and allows Helen’s Daughters to transmit agronomic recommendations translated into the Creole language. The advice is then delivered to the farmers through an integrated voice response (IVR) system that is accessible by dialling in, whether by smart or feature phone. The initial group of women farmers participating is also being trained to understand the data from the soil sensors and adapting its information to their farming methods.
In addition to providing these services to the farmers, Helen’s Daughters plans to build an e-commerce website where hoteliers can place orders for local produce without the hassle of sourcing from various buyers. Tapping into the hotel market is key for an island that has a thriving tourist industry boasting arrivals of over 1.1 million visitors in 2017, but imports more than 50% of its fruit and vegetables (statistics show that locally-sourced fruits and vegetables average around 42%). In other words, as a prime Caribbean holiday destination, St. Lucia has a hefty food import bill of $360 million, with some hotels reportedly importing $10-$15 million in crops that can be grown locally and bought at a lower price on the island.
Helen’s Daughters not only enables female farmers’ access to digitalisation but also brings them to the forefront of modern agricultural techniques in St. Lucia, which in turn will change the perception of gender dimensions in agriculture. Moreover, in a country such as St. Lucia, where tourism is the main driver of the economy and governments, civil society and NGOs are now turning to ways to promote their countries as a destination of choice while trying to maintain an environment for sustainable development, such an initiative is vital. The project tangibly marries both the old and new economies of agriculture and tourism to support each other. It also provides a solution to the general problem of sourcing of local food from local farmers, while including the forgotten target group of women in agriculture. After all, we strongly believe that St. Lucian rural women’s access to ICTs could level the playing field in the agricultural sector and open up economic opportunities that were otherwise unseen.