Africa: Women Are Behind 80 Percent of Continent's Food Production

31 October 2009

The International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) considers gender mainstreaming, or involving women in farming development efforts, an essential component of its efforts to improve food security in Africa. This is especially the case when it comes to economic empowerment. Annina Lubbock is Ifad's senior technical advisor for gender and household food security. She oversees how to improve the impact of Ifad's programs, both in terms of loans and grants, as well as empowering women to achieve gender equality.

Can you describe what Ifad's gender mainstreaming efforts entail?

I would say our approach to gender has two prongs. We use gender mainstreaming but we consider that gender mainstreaming is an instrument towards an end; it is not an end unto itself. So that means giving attention to how gender is addressed in all aspects of project design, from the identification of the activities, to monitoring and evaluation of them, to the management arrangements. It also means designing and implementing specific actions that will actually empower women, especially rural women. Our main entry point for improving the status of women is their economic empowerment. We think that's a precondition to all the rest.

It's also improving women's decision-making and to improve their overall wellbeing. Their labor load continues to be so high and services so poor in rural areas they will actually be constrained from engaging in more productive activities and income generating activities.

To what extent has gender mainstreaming been successful so far?

We did a survey of the performance of projects on gender and what we found is where the projects are having greatest is success is in building women's capacity and knowledge. After that definitely the improvement of women's income earning capacity. [It has been] less successful in improving women's decision making role at the community level because here you have a whole series of cultural restraints to deal with, which is stronger in some areas than others. Of course there are some [communities] which are very conservative where it's not really recognized that women can have a public role. The public space is supposed to be a man's space.

Interestingly, what we found is projects really need to do more to reduce women's workload. Very often women have been given more opportunities, they're earning more income, they're producing more, they're participating more, but their workload has increased. Sometimes they accept that because in exchange for that they have a higher status, they're more listened to in the communities and they've got more income to spend for their families.

What are the greatest obstacles to achieving household food security in Africa?

The obstacles are multiple - from environmental degradation, climate change, population pressure, governance, international food prices and so on. But I would say one of the key elements is precisely the lack of recognition of the role that women have in producing food, but also in generating the income with which they buy food. There is so much evidence that women use their income differently than men. They tend to use it for the family and they are the ones who buy the food. Not recognizing this means that women have not received targeted support, because women have specific roles and constraints so the types of services they get have to be differentiated. This is a major stumbling block, especially in Africa.

Just how important women are to food production in Africa?

Women's labor is behind 80 percent of the food production in Africa, which is extremely high. It's higher than in any other region in the world and yet women are doing all of this with a hand tied behind their back. They have the same problems that all smallholder farmers have in terms of access to markets, to inputs, to credit, but then on top of that they have their own specific constraints as women.

[This] means they have little time to juggle between their productive and reproductive roles, they have less income to finance except microfinance, they don't have access to banks because of lack of collateral, less access to land, less access to services. Extension contacts are very limited and according to the [Food and Agriculture Organization] only five percent of extension contacts worldwide are with women farmers. Only 15 percent of extension workers are women, and in some contexts this is a determining factor in actually reaching women.

Are governments stepping up and giving more support to women farmers?

Some governments are taking this on board and are recognizing it as an issue. I believe there is an increase in the number of women in agricultural training but then sometimes the issue is the deployment of female staff to the field. There are issues of transport, there are issues of accommodation, so it's actually more complicated to field female staff.

What we have found is a sort of alternative, intermediate option.

Something that we have tested in Ghana is training women from communities as women extension volunteers, so they become the interface with the extension worker who may be a man and this seems to be an effective way to go. Ultimately, one day if the level of technical capacity of these women would increase it might be that their colleagues might actually pay them something for their services. This has been done quite a lot for women veterinary volunteers, in Bangladesh, so this seems to be a good way to go.

How do African women farmers compare with women farmers in other parts of the developing world in terms of access to markets, to land, participation in farmers' or community organizations?

I think the constraints that women face worldwide in terms of accessing markets and extension services and capital are fundamentally the same with a few variations from one country to another. But what is striking about Africa is the gap between the contribution which women make to agriculture and food production, and the services they get, is more evident. It's much bigger. It's an issue that really sort of hits you in the face in Africa.

In Latin America, for example, you find women are less engaged in actual crop production in the fields. Even in some of the North African or Near East countries women might be looking after livestock but they won't be going out to the fields to work so much. So it's fundamentally in Africa that you've got this huge gap between what women do and what they have in terms of services - like business development services that will help them if they have a microenterprise activity, to help their enterprise grow, extension services, financial services.

Another thing that is particular to Africa is the poor state of infrastructure. Women have to travel far to fetch water, women transport most of the food on their heads. But when roads improve in rural areas then buyers start coming to the villages so women can actually sell at the farm gate instead of going to market.

One thing about land, actually the situation in Africa is quite interesting because out of the family plot women are allocated a plot of their own. It's traditionally recognized that women control the income that they get from working on that plot so this is their own money. This is actually a plus for African women. In other regions this doesn't happen. And also women have their own livestock. They are their assets and this also puts African women in a strong position in a sense.

So the money they make from the land it's theirs?

It's recognized that this is their money. This is why it's so important to make sure that they are getting the inputs that they need. For example, African countries now are putting a lot of money into fertilizer subsidies. Malawi, for example, is spending, investing huge amounts of money in fertilizer subsidies. But what is being found is not only are those subsidies not reaching the poorer farmers, but they're not reaching women. If women had access to better inputs even what they could get out of their small parcel of land would be much more. That contribution to the household income and nutrition is huge.

Can you describe some of the key ways that Ifad is helping women improve their household food security in Africa?

All our programs primarily focus on smallholder farmers and so almost automatically that means focusing on women. We require all our projects to have a special gender focus so all the projects that are focused on smallholder farmers have to have a special focus on women. We monitor that, we require them to have somebody in the project management unit who deals with gender issues; we require them to have a strategy and to monitor that strategy.

A third of Ifad's portfolio is on strengthening rural financial organizations. This is a key way also of enabling women to increase their productivity. We also have a very strong engagement with farmer organizations. We have a number of large grants to strengthen farmer organizations and within those programs we are also trying to build the capacity of women leaders. We have a women's leadership program where we're doing pilots in several countries to see how we can build leadership capacity from the bottom up. And we have an initiative every two years called the 'farmers forum', which is held in conjunction with Ifad's governing council.

This year, for the very first time, we're having an event about how to promote women's leadership in farmer organizations and this issue is going to be discussed by the farmers forum. Strengthening women's roles in farmer organizations is important because it's to enable them to get a place at the policy table so they are able actually to negotiate with governments about [pertinent] issues.

Is there anything else you would like to tell us?

The question about what can African governments do to help improve household food security - there's a huge amount that they can do. The first thing they can do is actually to recognize women's contribution to agriculture - not focus only on the family but recognize women's specific role and give visibility to this role, which means also giving visibility to this role in their national statistics. Currently these statistics are largely gender blind. They need to consult with women farmers, get to know what their specific needs are. That would enable them to understand what they need to do to support women. Find ways of tracking who gets the benefits.

And then fundamentally it's about investing in rural areas. Rural areas have got to be a good place to live, where young people don't feel that they want to run away. If you talk to many women farmers about what they would like for their daughters, they say, 'I don't want my daughter to be doing what I have to do now,' because there's huge drudgery in farm work at the moment. Conditions have to be created, for smallholder women smallholder farmers in particular, to farm better and if they don't want to farm then to have other opportunities in rural areas, other businesses or farm enterprises. There are other options but these options have to be created.

So they have to look at the rural space as a space where there has to be investment. Otherwise we're just going to have increased urbanization, increased rural poverty, further increasing feminization of agriculture and young people simply won't be interested.

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