Women Become Agricultural Leaders in Paraguay

Claudelina Portillo on her banana farm
Claudelina Portillo on her banana farm
Farmers organize, carve a path to success
“We realized we need the men to help us, so we are establishing a construction committee for them to lead.”

Claudelina Portillo was the only woman in an elected leadership position in the Guayaibi Poty cooperative in Paraguay. Many of her female friends told her they could not join because the $3 monthly fee was too high. Portillo raised the issue with the other cooperative leaders, but they weren’t willing to find a solution.

Faced with this resistance, she decided to quit the cooperative and strike out on her own. In 2008, when Portillo founded the female-only Paraiso Poty Committee, which produces and exports bananas and pineapple to Argentina, the other cooperative leaders mocked her. They said that the co-op would fail because it would be made up of women who would just argue with each other.

Portillo surprised her detractors when she secured a space in the central market in Asunción and soon after received an award from the Ministry of Agriculture for being the only women’s cooperative featured at the central market. The award prize was eminently useful—a piece of banana-processing equipment. Significantly, the cooperative is achieving large volumes: In 2012, the Paraiso Poty co-op produced 497 tons of banana.

Portillo’s success bucks attitudes that women can’t be agricultural leaders.

With USAID support, ACDI/VOCA’s Cooperative Development Program (CDP) works with Paraiso Poty and 15 other cooperatives in Paraguay to increase members’ incomes and fight rural poverty. Early on, the program provided training and awareness-raising about the importance of women’s roles in cooperatives for the board of directors and other elected leadership positions. Women leaders in co-ops often have a ripple effect, like Portillo does, as they help other women increase their financial security and become organizational decision makers along the way.

The program began working with Portillo and Paraiso Poty in 2010, aiding in the adoption of good agricultural practices and development of plans to manage and pack the banana production. As of May 2012, Paraiso Poty had 61 members, a 20 percent increase over 2011. The committee is still small and not yet registered as a formal cooperative, but through CDP’s assistance, it expects to be registered with 100 members by 2014.

Originally, all the Paraiso Poty members were women, but nine of the women’s husbands have since also joined the cooperative. This is a significant trend that differs from many cooperative practices where only one member of the household—typically the male—is a registered member and, therefore, the primary recipient of cooperative benefits.

Dual membership of husbands and wives exemplifies Portillo’s vision for Paraiso Poty to become a family-oriented  cooperative. “We realized we need the men to help us, so we are establishing a construction committee for them to lead,” she said.

Portillo also recognized that young people in the community are less interested in farming than their parents. To address the need for future farmers, the cooperative established a youth subcommittee and offers free membership to young people between the ages of 15 and 25. Through local government support, short-term courses have also been offered to the 25 youth members focused on vocational training in hairdressing, dressmaking and mechanics.

CDP in Paraguay works with small to medium-sized cooperatives that have promising business models but lack the technical, operational or organizational knowledge to best serve their members. Approximately 100 men and women from seven of the 16 co-ops have been trained in gender awareness in cooperative development through the CDP program, which runs from October 2010 to September 2014.