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Two approaches to women’s empowerment in Senegal

Deux femmes sur une bicyclette dans le village de Niaming, au Sénégal. ©IDinsight

What does it take to improve women’s economic empowerment in Senegal? As a final post in our Women’s Month series, we reflect on learnings from two Senegalese organizations with whom we work who take different approaches to empowering women. 

Kossam Société pour le Développement de l’Elevage [Kossam] was started in 2019 by la Laiterie du Berger [LdB], a social enterprise in the dairy sector. Together these organizations buy milk from dairy farmers in the north of Senegal, produce dairy products, and sell them across the country. Kossam also supports the professional development of dairy farmers through training programs and counselling. Women have traditionally played an important role in dairy farming in northern Senegal, and Kossam identified this as a way to bolster women’s empowerment in the region.

Tostan is a non-profit human rights-based organization focused on community-driven development. Founded in Senegal in 1991, Tostan has current programming in The Gambia, Mali, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, and Senegal. Tostan’s programs are focused on community empowerment, with an emphasis on supporting women’s and girls’ empowerment. In this post, we will consider two of their initiatives: Tostan’s flagship Community Empowerment Program (CEP) which it has implemented in thousands of communities, and their recent pilot on Microgrants carried out in 106 CEP communities. The CEP is a holistic three-year human rights-based program designed to support communities in developing and executing a vision of improved well-being for the future of their communities. In Tostan’s Theory of Change, benefits for women are expected to occur in the form of “reinforced women’s capabilities” by way of improved harmony within communities and more equitable social norms.1 Tostan also recently implemented a Microgrant pilot that provided three-time unconditional cash grants of 25.000 XOF to over 2,100 households in Senegal, targeting women as direct beneficiaries (among other vulnerable demographics).2

As a social enterprise, Kossam has approached women’s empowerment through an economic lens, while Tostan takes a holistic, community-based approach aimed at changing knowledge, attitudes and practices. In this blog, we share how we used data and evidence to help both Kossam and Tostan more deeply understand their programs’ effect on women’s economic and social empowerment so that they can decide how they can best support women’s equity in their work.3

Kossam: Women’s empowerment through economic support

Kossam aims to contribute to women’s empowerment through three economic levers: 

  1. Increasing the number of women dairy farmers; 
  2. Increasing financial inclusion for women dairy farmers;
  3. Contributing to women’s professional development as ‘business’ owners. 

Kossam has been working with proportionately more and more women, who currently represent half of their total dairy farmers. This trend also holds for participants in Kossam’s ‘Mini Farm’ program.4 In their Theory of Change, ‘Mini Farmers,’ half of whom are women, are expected to serve as role models for the community of dairy farmers. In 2021, they also pioneered an incubation training program for young women, after which they could begin selling their milk to Kossam, thereby encouraging them to work in dairy farming. These activities are seen as a way to reinforce and formally acknowledge the important role women have traditionally played in dairy farming.

In addition to increasing the number of women dairy farmers, Kossam also aims to increase financial inclusion for existing ones. Many dairy farmers – especially women – initially did not have access to Mobile Money, but now they all get paid via a Mobile Money platform. Thanks to this system, women dairy farmers can withdraw their own revenues; during our interviews, one woman told us that she can now “collect [her] money in secret and in full security”. This makes it possible for the woman dairy farmer, and not only her husband, to access and exercise some control over her own revenues.

Kossam also aims to professionalize women as ‘business’ owners, so that they see themselves as milk producers with assets and a stable income stream. To that end, they offer one-on-one advice, especially to members of the ‘Mini Farm’ program, on topics ranging from animal health to feeding best practices. They also offer regular training programs to all dairy farmers. Our research showed that these are generally attended by more women than men,5 confirming that women are receptive to Kossam’s activities geared towards the professional development of dairy farmers.

However, our research findings were in line with the body of evidence in the academic literature6 showing that the approach of empowering women through economic support programs can face some challenges related to social norms. Indeed, perceptions of women’s role in a community have sociocultural determinants, and in northern Senegal, practices such as child marriage, as well as other forms of domestic violence, continue to take place. Parallel to the encouraging progress we observed in the field of women’s economic empowerment, some women we met faced similar constraints within their household to that empowerment.


How we worked to measure dynamics within a household

Seeking to understand the impact of sociocultural dynamics inside of households and with respect to decision-making, and knowing that this was a sensitive topic to ask about directly, we played a fake money allocation game during data collection. Complementing qualitative questions, people’s revealed allocations could help us better understand intra-household decision-making. We asked certain dairy farmers – 3 men and 3 women; a small subset of our sample – and then their spouses separately, to distribute fake money across four categories – food, health care, personal expenses and business expenses – between themself, their spouse and their child (or their household savings for the business expenses category). 

We then asked spouses how they thought their dairy farmer spouse had allocated the fake money. First, almost everyone acknowledged that regardless of who the revenues from dairy farming theoretically belonged to, men had the final say on how it was spent. Then, interestingly, interviewees’ descriptions of decision-making with their spouse differed along gendered lines: women were more likely to cite that they and their husband were aligned in their habits and priorities, while those who said that, on some categories, their spouse might have decided differently to them were almost all men. Men used assertive language to describe this, such as “I need to give my consent for everything that takes place in my household”, while women claimed to be somewhat involved in the decision making process, but nevertheless confirmed that “I always need my husband’s approval”.


Even though Kossam does not seem to be leading to all-encompassing social autonomy for women dairy farmers, the fact that more women have revenues attributed to their name that they can access independently, and that they are the ones receiving training programs and advice on improving their business activities, means that Kossam could be a part of a gradual shift away from patriarchal gender roles.

However, despite receiving their own revenues, women we met still experienced constraints to their holistic empowerment, and we recommend that projects aiming to improve women’s holistic empowerment consider a complementary component that addresses intra-household dynamics, which in turn are rooted in sociocultural customs. This suggests that providing money alone is not sufficient for women’s holistic empowerment, and organizations implementing programs similar to Kossam should decide whether they would like to solely focus on economic empowerment or start thinking about empowerment in broader terms. With this finding in mind, Kossam has begun considering investing in empowerment training for participants in hopes that this will help them reinforce the program’s efforts to support women’s holistic empowerment.

Tostan: Women’s Empowerment through Community Engagement

Unlike Kossam, Tostan’s takes up a holistic approach to women’s empowerment, aiming to enable communities to change social norms such that they reflect dignity and respect for all and a recognition of women’s capability as leaders and decision makers both within and outside of the household. To realize this, Tostan’s CEP involves three key phases: 

  1. The establishment of a 17-member community management committee (CMC), of which at least nine are women, charged with mobilizing and coordinating community-wide activities; 
  2. A visioning exercise on the future of the community, aligning them with their fundamental values;
  3. A 3-year of interactive education facilitated by Tostan trained staff coming from the area, using a respectful non-judgmental approach.

CMC members work together to decide on the development initiatives they would like to implement in their own communities, representing a concerted opportunity for women to be consistently engaged in communal decision-making processes.

In parallel, the educational workshops are broken into two consecutive modules: Kobi and Aawde, discussing human rights, approaches to democracy, conflict-resolution, and practical skills such as literacy, numeracy, and project management. The majority of participants are women and the participatory non-judgmental approach of the classes are meant to provide women with the necessary skills to be leaders in their households and communities. 

The descriptive study IDinsight completed in 2020 found that participants repeatedly cited improved harmony between men and women as a positive outcome of participation in CEP.7 This perceived shift in social dynamics was described as an increase in respect for the role of both men and women’s participation in decision-making in general. To strengthen the potential of the CEP to affect women’s economic situations, the program’s Aawde module provides training on income generating activities and business management so that when they do have access funds, they might be empowered to make productive decisions on how to use these. Tostan then provides partner communities with a small community Development Support Fund (DSF) managed by the CMC (with women leadership) in each village. Typically, this serves to undertake collective activities as well as to provide loans to individuals (mostly women) which are then repaid enabling new loans, reinforcing the potential of CEP to enhance the overall social experience of women.

Recently, Tostan distributed microgrants directly to households in CEP communities. The IDinsight team conducted a Process Evaluation to investigate the implementation of this cash transfer program. Given that about half of these grants were distributed directly to women, and that nearly 70% of beneficiaries were also participants in CEP, this provided an opportunity to consider if the perceived “improved harmony” found in the descriptive study was reflected in the decision-making process households made when determining how to use these funds.

We found that, regardless of gender, beneficiaries always consulted their spouses on how to spend the grant funds, meaning that men and women were generally equal participants in deciding how grant funds were spent. Moreover, we found that women who received the grants were statistically significantly more likely to use the grant funds on productive purchases like business supplies or agricultural inputs than men recipients. While we cannot make causal claims about the impact of the CEP on these collaborative processes, we observed that, in these communities where the CEP took place, men and women were equal partners in the decision-making process. 


Our findings from our engagements with Kossam and Tostan provided important insights for implementers on how their programs were succeeding in empowering women, and what areas of women’s empowerment they might want to reinforce going forward. Research practices like the process evaluations we carried out for Kossam and Tostan can help other organizations identify how they might refine or reinforce their programs based on the perceived outcomes of women’s empowerment they are producing.


  1. 1. More precisely, the ToC identified the following sub-components to “reinforced women’s capabilities”: (1) Women express themselves (more) in public contexts (such as village meetings) and in private contexts; (2) Women’s ideas and opinions are taken into consideration in private and in public contexts; (3) Women are more involved in decision-making processes at the family and community levels; (4) Women take on new roles (as leaders, learners, mobilizers, managers, etc.) and serve as role models; (5) Women manage income-generating activities (IGAs) more effectively; (5) Women have greater self-esteem and pride; (6) Women have increased capacity to defend their human rights and the rights of others. The other two outcomes “Collective capacity to take and sustain action” and “Health and hygiene”, entailing the application of new skills and roles by women, are also an important part of the process of women’s empowerment and the greater gender equality.
  2. 2. Following the COVID-19 pandemic, Tostan implemented a Microgrant initiative as part of a two-year multifaceted program, funded by the MasterCard Foundation to support economic resilience. It was only implemented in communities where the CEP was already being implemented, providing an opportunity to consider what women’s empowerment could look like when approached from both the side of a social framework and economic empowerment through direct monetary support.
  3. 3. For Kossam, we carried out a qualitative Process Evaluation including three weeks of in-person, mixed methods data collection. We interviewed 41 people – mostly dairy farmers, as well as some Kossam employees, and carried out one focus group discussion. For Tostan’s CEP, we carried out a longer-term descriptive study that was based on 416 qualitative interviews and 108 focus groups. For Tostan’s Microgrants initiative, we carried out a Process Evaluation with 301 quantitative phone interviews with beneficiaries of the program and a portion of their spouses, and 24 qualitative in-person interviews with beneficiaries and spouses.
  4. 4. Dairy farmers with consistently high milk production rates can become ‘Mini Farmers’, which entails receiving a loan from the state and an asset transfer from Kossam for cows’ stabulation.
  5. 5. In our qualitative interviews, one counselor told us that “women are more receptive [because] they spend more time with the cows”, and we found that women dairy farmers’ attendance rates were higher than their male counterparts’ in our qualitative sample.
  6. 6. See in particular Lazlo et al. 2017. Grappling with the Challenges of Measuring Women’s Economic Empowerment, Wei et al. 2020. What works to enhance women’s agency Cross-cutting lessons from experimental and quasi-experimental studies, Haberland, de Hoop, Desai, Engebretsen, Ngo. 2021. Adolescent Girls’ and Young Women’s Economic Empowerment Programs: Emerging Insights From a Review of Reviews, or Co Impact Evidence review. 2021. What Works for Low Income Working Women.
  7. 7. A descriptive study, our research was not meant to indicate a causal effect of the program but rather perceived outcomes based on in-depth, qualitative data.