3 December 2013

Africa: Restoring Sight to Africa's Gender-Blind Rice Sector

For more than 20 years, Anastasia Ngwakun from Bamunkumbit village in central Cameroon has been farming rice the hard way - using only hand tools. But Ngwakun knows that if she were a man, she would have access to the technology that would not require her to work so hard.

"Rice farming is hard work, especially for a woman, because I am involved in the planting and processing using limited or no resources and tools, unlike the men folk in my village, who can easily get credit or have access to a tractor," Ngwakun, who grows rice on a 1.5-hectare plot, told IPS.

"Women do not have access to land, and many times we farm plots that are owned by men, and they dictate where tractors are available, which plots are ploughed first, and that we can only plough after [they have first done so]," she added.

Ngwakun also does not have access to the use of threshing machines, which would save her from the labourious task of removing the rice husks by hand.

Rice production and processing would be easier for Ngwakun if she used improved technology like threshing machines, weeding tools and parboiling vessels, which can boil up to twice the amount of rice normal pots can. But Ngwakun, like many women in Cameroon and in the rest of Africa, does not have access to this.

Research by Africa Rice Centre, a pan-African rice research organisation, shows that compared to women, who statistically form the bulk of rice farmers in Africa, male rice farmers have greater and unequal access to resources, such as farming land, inputs, capital, equipment and knowledge.

These entrenched differences between female and male rice farmers are partially fuelled by local culture and economic considerations.

Afiavi Agbhor-Noameshie, a socio-agronomist and gender specialist at Africa Rice Centre, told IPS that there is a glaring absence of gender mainstreaming in the rice sector.

"Women are in all the activities of rice farming from seed to market, yet the available technologies are not made with them in mind," she told IPS.

"There is need for drudgery reduction in the rice value chain by building awareness and getting the buy-in from men that when we talk about gender we are not talking about how to gather women or how to work with women but about equalisation of opportunities," she added.

Currently, Africa is a net rice importer and consumes more than it produces. Last year, the continent spent five billion dollars importing 12 million tonnes of rice, the same amount it consumed, according to statistics from Africa Rice Centre.

Agbhor-Noameshie, Abdoulaye Kabore and Michael Misiko are co-authors of a reference book on rice in Africa titled "Realising Africa's Rice Promise".

In the book, the scientists say that despite the active involvement of both men and women in rice farming, processing and marketing, the gender perspective has not been appreciated or considered in development research.

But women should be consulted and considered in the development of rice farming in Africa, according to Nathalie Me-Nsope, an agricultural economist and gender specialist at the Global Centre for Food Systems and Innovations at Michigan State University.

"We cannot continue talking about farmers when we know that women are not a homogenous group because they face specific challenges that limit their production and the marketing of their produce, challenges which men do not face," Me-Nsope told IPS.

"There are serious gender inequalities in the rice sector in Africa and specific efforts must be made to address these gender-based constraints as a result of roles, responsibilities and division of labour by doing a detailed analysis of what happening."

Cisse Peinda Gueye, a rice seed grower from Senegal, says science research should help make rice farming less of a burden and more of an opportunity for women to be able to balance both farming and caring for their families.

"Rice quality is important for rice farmers and for customers who buy it. Science researchers should help in improving quality so that women meet the expectation of the market where they sell the rice," Gueye told IPS.

Ngwakun agreed that women need to be given better access to resources.

"I would be a happy farmer, like male farmers, if I had the same access to resources such as better seed to produce more and better quality rice that will earn me more income. But for a woman farming rice, the struggle does not seem to end," said Ngwakun.

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