NEW YORK – When Kozue Yuki gave up her day job three years ago to take up farming in northeastern Japan, she never expected to find herself on an international panel at the United Nations, nor did she envision finding her voice or inspiring others to pursue their dreams.
Last month, she did all three.
“I was impressed by how people are making efforts to empower women,” the 44-year-old said in an interview in New York, where she was one of four panelists at a U.N. event titled “Actions to empower rural women and girls.”
She joined a Tanzanian agricultural tutor, a Nepalese activist pushing for sustainable development for women, and a gender and rural development officer from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization for the discussions, which took place on the sidelines of the annual Commission on the Status of Women in March.
Yuki, who quit her job at an English school to follow her parents into farming, said she had been “encouraged to take steps forward in our region,” and said that even small steps, such as speaking out more, can help shift the power balance in the countryside, where decisions are still predominantly made by men.
While Yuki’s parents spent their lives growing fruit for high-end buyers who bought them as seasonal gifts, she has chosen another route. To appeal to younger consumers who want to spend less money, she cultivates a variety of fruits to be dried and made into pickles or tea.
She has begun selling her products to buyers in Hong Kong and is hoping to expand her international business further.
While sometimes feeling isolated in Tendo in mountainous Yamagata Prefecture, she has benefited greatly from a strong network of female peers with whom she often exchanges ideas. She also directs a group of women farmers who range in age from their 20s to 40s.
“Networking is very important,” she said, adding that she wants to give other young female farmers as much help as she received in order to create an environment in which “the next generation of female leaders can grow.”
Yuki’s words resonated with women at the event.
Lorraine Njuhi is an active member of the Agricool Association, a youth-led agribusiness association in Kenya. The 27-year-old has ambitions to grow her own vegetables and work with her family, as Yuki has done.
“If I can bring around my family members to the beauty of doing farming and creating food security awareness (then I want to do it) because these are necessities that we need in our life,” she said.
For Naomi Ueda, a graduate student at Sophia University in Tokyo, Yuki’s social media presence has transformed the image of what it means to work on a farm, giving it an appeal to young women such as herself.
The 23-year-old is slated to begin working at an agricultural cooperative in Toyama Prefecture next month, where she hopes to be a “voice of change.” By looking to female pioneers such as Yuki, she wants to play a bigger part in the decision-making process within her country.
One day, she said, she may also start her own business, just as Yuki has done.