From flood victims to frontline responders: One women-owned cooperative steps up in rural China


Author(s): Liu Zhu, Wang Qing, Wenting Zhao

Head of UN Women China Office, Ms. Smriti Aryal visits the field in Qinghai province, China. UN Women/Liu Fengliang

When the COVID-19 pandemic first struck China, Qiaotou village was already struggling. Set in the Liupan mountain area of Qinghai province, the village had more than 25 households living under the poverty line at the time, and with transport suspended and markets closed they were particularly vulnerable to food shortages. 

Help came in the form of a local women-led farmers’ cooperative. Guanglin Cooperative quickly stepped in with systems to provide food and other essential goods to the village via its COVID-19 response management team. In this way, it found itself at the heart of Qiaotou’s emergency response.

A few years ago, Tie Lingmei, would have found this hard to imagine. Having returned home after working as a taxi driver in another county, Tie had decided to start a sunflower-planting cooperative in 2016 to boost her family’s income and help other women in her village; yet its entire harvest failed when struck by a huge flood the following autumn. It was help from a UN Women project for women farmers, funded by the Chanel Foundation, that enabled them to rejuvenate the cooperative (more on this story here). As part of the project they planted a greater range of resilient crops across a much larger area, signed contracts with purchasers in nearby provinces, and provided secure jobs to women from the village’s most vulnerable households. So, when disaster struck a second time, they were ready to respond.

Local women from Guanglin Cooperative with their agriculture products. UN Women/Qiu Bi

The pandemic had severely impacted delivery and shipping options for all of Qiaotou’s farmers. “We knew that we had to upgrade our agricultural structure,” recalls Tie. “To weather the crisis financially and meet the need of residents at the same time.” 

Without knowing when the pandemic would end, the Cooperative worked with UN Women China to restructure the way that they planted their key crops—mainly sunflowers, potatoes, corn, cabbages, apples, and pears—so that they could be sold nearby and could avoid any problems related to shipping and delivery. They also began to plant a greater variety of vegetables in smaller batches, and to rear pigs, sheep and chickens. This combination of planting and breeding allowed the cooperative to set up a fully organic, zero-waste circular system: their animal waste becomes fertilizer, while unused produce becomes animal feed. 

The wins for the cooperative have been three-fold, says Tie. They have not only been able to provide the full range of supplies that local families have needed during the pandemic, but to help their community be more resilient in the long term, while bringing the women farmers and their families further out of poverty. This year each member earned RMB 26,000—an increase of more than 60 per cent on the previous year. 

The cooperative members have noticed changes amongst themselves, too. Tie recalls that a few years ago her fellow members rarely expressed their opinions in public and preferred to spend most of their time at home. Now, she says, they are a force in the public life of the village: organizing events and activities, and pursuing new skills. 

Women farmers work in Guanglin Cooperative. UN Women/Qiu Bi

“With our increased incomes and awareness, we’ve realized that we can organize learning activities and build women aid groups all by ourselves,” reports Tie. “The economic empowerment has also improved our status and capabilities. Now we can contribute more, both at home and in our community.”

The Rural Women's Economic Empowerment Project in Qinghai Province is part of the programme, Strengthening Qinghai Women Farmers’ Income Security and Resilience in a Changing Climate, which started in 2018. It aims to advance the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 5 on gender equality; Goal 8 on decent work and economic growth; and Goal 13 on climate change action. It is supported by the Chanel Foundation.