Keithlin Caroo
Ashoka Fellow since 2022   |   Saint Lucia

Keithlin Caroo

Keithlin is challenging gender bias in the agricultural sector by promoting rural women’s participation through advocacy, capacity-building and improved market access. Her work is building the…
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This description of Keithlin Caroo's work was prepared when Keithlin Caroo was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2022.

Introduction

Keithlin is challenging gender bias in the agricultural sector by promoting rural women’s participation through advocacy, capacity-building and improved market access. Her work is building the technical and legal foundations to include female farmers in the agricultural value chain, supporting their economic empowerment while strengthening food security in the Caribbean.

The New Idea

Keithlin is changing the mindset in St. Lucia that “only men are farmers.” Through her organization, Helen’s Daughters, she is changing narratives around women in agriculture through media and political advocacy, and increasing rural women’s access to financial resources by including them in the agricultural value chain. To complement this approach, Keithlin has created a 6-month training program for rural women where they can become better producers and business owners. By providing capacity-building and access to adaptive agricultural technologies, the program is helping female farmers improve their economic wellbeing and earn social and political recognition. Keithlin also guarantees market access to women who complete the program by linking them directly to the local hotel and restaurant industry via an e-commerce platform, which provides a reliable source of income.  

Helen’s Daughters has become a farming lobby and advocacy group that has put the concept of import-substitution on the St. Lucian government’s agenda and in the wider Caribbean. Keithlin’s approach to help local women farmers increase their production capacity and quality, coupled with a seamless process for buyers through the platform, is shifting the practices of the agricultural-food-tourism system into buying local and organic products. Reducing the region’s dependence on food imports benefits farmers by opening up access to higher-value markets, while strengthening food sovereignty and rebuilding agricultural communities. Keithlin is currently working to replicate her model in neighboring islands that are also largely dependent on tourism and experience similar problems as St. Lucia. She also seeks to develop additional online courses that women around the world can access.

The Problem

In St. Lucia, it is widely believed that women are not involved in the agricultural sector when in fact, women form an integral part of it. Census data shows that 30-35% of registered farmers are women who focus on subsistence and small-scale production for local markets. For instance, observations of the Castries Market—the largest produce market in St. Lucia, show that 90% of the vendors are women, and in most cases, these women are both producers and vendors. Yet they are largely excluded from the agricultural value chain due to the misconception that farming is male-oriented, coupled with mistrust from buyers. Relegated to the informal sector, women farmers are not accounted for in official registers and therefore cannot access state-sponsored opportunities and benefits. Women often sell to bigger buyers under a male relative’s name because they cannot obtain the certifications required by the Ministry of Agriculture. In addition to legal invisibility, female farmers lack the resources and technical skills for large-scale production, which hinders their access to credit and opportunities for trade within the local food industry.

Alongside gender inequalities in the agricultural sector, Keithlin seeks to address the deterioration of agriculture in St. Lucia and in the Caribbean more broadly. During the 1950s, St. Lucia became the banana capital of the Caribbean. With access to European markets and an almost endless supply of bananas, a middle-class appeared. Nonetheless, in 1996, when farmers from the Caribbean had to compete against Latin American fruits backed by multinational corporations, the agricultural industry was destroyed, and farmers were negatively affected. Since then, agriculture has not recovered and most farmers now live below the poverty line, representing approximately one-fifth of St. Lucia’s working population. Women are especially vulnerable: 40% of households are female-headed, especially in rural areas, and face higher poverty rates than male-headed households  (42.3%). Rising poverty has resulted in high rates of suicides and drug abuse in the rural areas where Keithlin grew up, particularly among youth.

The situation in St. Lucia exemplifies wider trends in the Caribbean. In recent decades, Caribbean economies have focused on tourism and commodity exports, leading to a steep decline in the regional agricultural sector. As a result, local supply chains suffer from extreme fragmentation and are often unable to consistently connect local farmers to viable commercial markets.  A stark indicator of the depth of this problem is the high food importation bill of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), which increased from $2.08 billion in 2000 to $4.75 billion in 2018 for the 14 member countries. If current trends continue, it is expected to increase to $8-10 billion by 2020. These figures represent more than 60% of total food consumption for almost all CARICOM members, with half of them importing more than 80% of the food they consume. St. Lucia is spending more than $360 million on importing produce from the U.S., Europe, and Latin America— even though most of these products could be produced on the island itself.

Caribbean countries’ dependence on imports presents a considerable risk to food security, not to mention an economic burden. Another consequence of the high importation bill is an increase in obesity rates, which is linked to the consumption of highly processed foods that are among the top five food imports in the region. To drive a shift towards local production, Helen’s Daughters is working to prove to the government and the agri-food sector that local farmers, including women, can produce in high volumes while meeting international quality standards.

The Strategy

Helen’s Daughters works at a grassroots level providing capacity-development training, mentorship, and access to high-value markets for rural women farmers. On the top-down front, the organization leverages the media and partnerships with the public and private sectors to address gender inequalities in opportunities for female farmers, as well as putting food security and climate resilience in the public and policy agenda. In this way, Keithlin is positioning rural women as key actors in driving sustainable development in the Caribbean.

Helen’s Daughters is promoting rural women’s visibility to increase their social and political recognition. One of the key strategies to do this is through the initiative #Herstory, which highlights a woman every month on social media and in a top national newspaper, The St. Lucia Star. #Herstory puts the spotlight on rural St. Lucia women who are involved in agriculture, fisheries, agro-processing, and animal husbandry to portray that women are just as productive as men and to demonstrate fortitude within their struggles. The project is not only shifting attitudes around gender roles, but is also building up rural women’s self-confidence to recognize themselves as farmers and businesswomen who are making valuable contributions to the agricultural sector. As a result of such exposure, six Helen´s Daughters alumni have been featured on government-funded documentaries on Women in Agriculture and Food Security and Climate Change.

To deepen her impact, Keithlin has partnered up with leaders from the private and public sectors to establish the Rural Women’s Academy, the only program providing adaptive agricultural technologies to rural women in the Eastern Caribbean. Through a free six-month program, female farmers of all ages are learning to become more productive and establish their own agri-business, pushing women to the forefront of modern agricultural techniques. The curriculum includes hydroponics, financial bookkeeping, legal advice, sustainable practices, customer service, marketing, business development, crop monitoring, specialized sensors to boost production, quality assurance, and information on current market demand and prices. The women also participate in a mentoring program that meets once a month for two hours with CEO’s and experts, even after they finalized their training.

Crucially, the program is recognized by the Ministry of Agriculture, so participants can access its Farmer Certification Program which has largely excluded women. This program aims to ensure that farmers meet international market standards, providing training in sustainable agricultural practices and technologies. Becoming certified provides farmers the opportunity to sell to larger buyers such as hotels, restaurants, and supermarkets, and to ask fair prices for their crops. Through Helen’s Daughters, Keithlin is helping women gain formal recognition as farmers and attain professional standards to become eligible for the program and other government support.

In 2019, Helen’s Daughters launched an e-commerce website, Green Gold, that allows the food-retail sector to purchase goods online from the farmers who have completed the program. Delivery and administrative fees are paid for by the buyers, allowing farmers to be paid 15-35% above market rates. Revenue generated through the platform is then reinvested into the non-profit activities of the organization, contributing to its financial sustainability. The women also have access to an information program that updates farmers regularly on market demands, farming needs and weather using a soil sensor that gathers data from each plot of land. They receive those agricultural updates via mobile phone, which is extremely valuable to strategic planning and decision-making. Additionally, women who complete the program join Helen’s Daughters alumni network that fosters cooperation. Farmers growing similar crops continuously exchange best practices and consequently enhance their collective farming capacity. The organization also offers a weekly radio segment featuring farming tips and practices for a national audience.

Since 2016, 300 women have been trained through Helen's Daughters, representing over 7% of the island’s farmers. They have helped 150 farmers move from pesticides to organic farming and 50-60 farmers have made contracts with hotels. The farmers have almost been able to double their price per kg (earning about $0.44-$0.74 more per kg), as the restaurant and hotel industry pay higher prices. Therefore, if a typical farmer earned up to $370 per month selling as a market vendor that farmer is now gaining $740-$1,100. As of now, the farmers sell to 6 hotels, 2 restaurants, and the largest supermarket on the island, planning to double this number within the next two years. Furthermore, 5% of the women trained have applied for visas, which is now possible because they have a financial footprint after transitioning away from cash payments, using their bank statements and documentation to demonstrate suitable financial support.  

Through Helen’s Daughters, Keithlin hopes to increase the fruit and vegetable production of the island up to 40-50% within 5 years. Helen’s Daughters has several strategies to scale the project in the next decade. Keithlin wants to increase the number of farmers and hotels in the program and build distribution centres in the north and south of the island for quality assessment and delivery of produce. She also wants to increase investment in the design and implementation of ‘smart farms’ for partner farmers and develop partnerships to export local produce to neighboring islands. Moreover, Keithlin is collaborating with the University of the West Indies to replicate the model in St. Vincent and the Grenadines and St. Kitts and Nevis, and plans to eventually reach all the Caribbean. Additionally, Keithlin is developing paid online courses to fund a free virtual version of the Rural Women’s Academy that could expand her reach worldwide. Helen’s Daughters also leads advocacy efforts to combat dependence on food imports and promote women’s economic empowerment, most recently at CARICOM’s annual Council for Trade and Economic Development in 2019. Additionally, Keithlin has represented St. Lucia at the One Young World Summit 2018 and the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) 12th Regional Agricultural Planners’ Forum 2019, where she has helped position the role of women in agriculture, food security, and climate change resilience in the national and international agenda.

The Person

Keithlin’s upbringing in a rural community in St. Lucia exposed her to the realities of local agriculture from a young age. Her parents and grandparents were farmers. When she was in primary school, she helped her grandmother sell produce in the market, handling transactions, cleaning, and decorating the stall to attract customers. Her grandmother would wake up to prepare breakfast, till the land, plant, and get to the market before 5:00 a.m. Yet when Keithlin found her mother’s birth certificate, she noticed her grandfather was listed as a farmer and her grandmother as a housewife. She concluded women were invisible in the agricultural sphere, unrecognized as producers because of social standards. Instead, they downplayed their roles as market vendors or housewives. This led her to seek a change that was not only about sustainable incomes but about rural women being empowered and contributing to food security of the Caribbean.

Growing up, Keithlin’s parents pushed her away from farming because it was not a promising occupation. Instead she focused on pursuing higher education and studied Political Science and International Relations, driven by hopes of joining the UN. Her ambition was repeatedly laughed off by others, yet after winning a scholarship to study in the US, Keithlin secured an internship at the UN Headquarters. She eventually achieved a full time position with the Office of the Assistant Secretary General for Political Affairs, where she developed an interest in peace-building and international development.

After some time at the UN, she sought to work more closely on issues related to small island developing states. She began to consider the implementation of development work at the grassroots level, especially because each time she returned home, she witnessed her community degrade further. Poverty, suicides, drugs, alcohol abuse, and gang violence increased. Seeing the rural communities that were most successful in the banana era become severely impoverished motivated her to seek solutions to regenerate the agricultural sector. She recognized that supporting local farmers was key to reducing rural poverty by enhancing economic and social equality, and lowering the food-import bill. Keithlin launched Helen’s Daughters while continuing to work full time at the UN in New York, and finally quit in 2020 to fully focus on her organization.

Keithlin has been featured in Forbes Magazine in 2018 and 2019, as well as on the Global Agriculture Journal and leading publications in the Eastern Caribbean. She was the winner of the 2016 UN Women’s Empower Women Champions for Change Program, from which her project was born. In 2020,  Helen’s Daughters was among the recipients of a three-year grant from WVL-Equality Canada, and was one of 17 organizations awarded funding by the Prime Minister of St. Lucia at the Annual Charity Ball, in view of the work that they have been contributing to the country.

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