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How can Governments and Donors support Africa’s Women Farmers?

April 24, 2014
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I got into a bit of hot water recently for a recent post taking down a dodgy stat on women’s land ownership, so it’s nice to be able to post on some really good numbers on gender and agriculture. Levelling the Field: Improving Opportunities for Women Farmers in Africa, is an important and innovative new report (exec sum here, full report here) – sorry I’ve taken a few weeks to get round to it.

MDG : Parity men and women farming in Uganda, Women in africa

The report is innovative partly because it seems fairly unique as a serious research collaboration between an advocacy NGO (the ONE Campaign) and the World Bank, but also because of its findings.

1. Women farmers consistently produce less per hectare than their male counterparts. Like for like comparisons (farms of similar plot size in similar bits of the country) reveal gender gaps of anywhere between 23% (Tanzania) to 66% (Niger). See graph.

2. The gender gap is caused by more than unequal access to inputs: women also face unequal returns to inputs. E.g. even when they have access, extension services seem to benefit women less than men.

3. Focusing on the key drivers of the gender gap in individual countries can both enhance gender equality and foster economic growth.

– Labour poses the main barrier to achieving equality in productivity across all the countries profiled. e.g. women-owned farms tend to have smaller households, and struggle to find enough workers; male workers on female owned farms are less productive than male workers on male-owned farms. This is a big policy vacuum in most countries.

– Differences in the use of, and returns to, fertiliser and other non-labour inputs matter for the gender gap. eg women use less and lower quality fertilizer and get less technical support with application – even after a woman accesses farm land, other associated challenges can limit her productivity.

– agricultural extension and information does not improve female farmers’ productivity to the same degree as that of male farmers. Women farmers tend to get info second hand via their husbands and friends if they are not head of household.

– the gender gap in education, prevalent in previous decades, continues to affect women farmers today: legacy of past gender gaps –gender ag productivity gap improving women’s access to markets and enabling female farmers to shift into high-value commercial agriculture both show promise.

4. 2014 (as AU year of ag and food security) offers an historic opportunity for African policy-makers, donor governments and development partners to move the agenda forward and commit to concrete policy action to redress the gender gap in African agriculture.

The paper then sets out 10 policy priorities for narrowing the Gender gap and assesses the evidence for each as ‘promising’ or ‘emerging’ (nice trick, NGO and other policy report writers please note). Highlights are:

  • Strengthen women’s land rights, through registration (whether of communities or individuals), co-titling and individual titling for women, and reforming family and inheritance laws.
  • Improve women’s access to hired labour (financing and other support)
  • Enhance women’s use of labour-saving equipment, (credit)
  • Provide community child-care centres (good to see the care economy getting a look in)
  • Promoting women farmers’ access to improved seeds and fertiliser, (finance (again) and smaller fertiliser bags suitable for smaller plots).
  • Tailor extension services to women’s needs (gender training for extension workers; bringing services closer to the household level through farmer field schools and mobile phones; women ag promoters)
  • Promote women;s cultivation of cash crops and access to markets (working with existing women’s groups)
  • Raise education levels through adult ed programmes aimed at women farmers

I asked one of our gender gurus, Shukri Gesod for her comments, and here’s some of what she sent over:

Unpacking the dual-roles: The summary touches on the fact that unlike their male counterparts the women have many competing roles of which affects their ability to invest time into the plot-this is a huge factor especially when were speaking about a female headed household-female managed women farmers 2plot.

Ownership and access: Glad to see inheritance law reform as a policy change option as that’s a major blockade especially for the “widowed” or “divorced” or even in instances when the children are all female. But what about when the rule of law is not strong and cultural law prevails? In Tanzania, cultural law for example has been codified thus cementing the closing out of women – how do we reform that?

Access to Markets: Women’s sense of (in)security is a major blocker of women engaging in markets – i.e. security in the physical sense as well as security in their production. In terms of access to credit,  how is mobile banking changing women’s lives? Until it came along, in most countries women couldn’t open a bank account – they still needed (still do in some parts) a male signatory.


  1. An interesting post with lots of good points. There are two issues I’ll add – first, research into lower productivity on women-farmed fields has been linked by some to the fact that they can command less unpaid family labour than men – women only have children (and children have the cat and dog?) to help out, while men have women as well. The role of unpaid family labour in homestead farming is critical and looking at it is essential in uncovering exhaustion, unequal capture of gains, and opportunity costs for women and children. Second, added to the list of ‘things women need’ to change this picture of inequality is a whole different kind of technology – I’m not talking agricultural tools here, rather, safe and woman-controlled methods of contraception. No point in focusing on long-term plans for your land if you can’t tell when you’ll next be pregnant or what the eventual size of your family will be.

  2. Thanks for sharing this interesting paper. My first impression is that the findings do not fully reflect some of the most critical constraints related to the unpaid care work, apart from childcare. Findings from Oxfam’s programmes using rapid care analysis point to “collecting fuel and preparing meals” as the task with a highest impact in women’s mobility and time, followed by “childcare” and “collecting water and washing clothes”. The report only refers to the importance of access to water in relation to farming activities without mentioning its importance for unpaid activities. Additionally, fuel collection, access to electricity, cooking or washing are not even mentioned throughout the document. Access to finance is only touched through one policy recommendation: “enhance women’s use of tools and equipment that reduce the amount of labour they need on the farm” (credit); but there is no mention to credit for technology to improve cooking and cleaning activities, which would significantly reduce women’s burden of time at the household level and address one of the most significant gender gaps.
    I also have some concerns about the fifth policy recommendation: “Encourage women to use more, higher quality fertilizer”. I am an advocate of a paradigm shift in agricultural development towards more sustainable, regenerative production systems that also considerably improve the productivity of small-scale farmers. “A farmer is not only a producer of agricultural goods, but also a manager of an agro-ecological system that provides quite a number of public goods and services (e.g. water, soil, landscape, energy, biodiversity and recreation)” (UNCTAD: 2013) http://unctad.org/en/PublicationsLibrary/ditcted2012d3_en.pdf

  3. Duncan, in response to Shukri Gesod’s questions concerning “ownership and access” when rule of law is not strong and cultural law prevails, we have seen dramatic improvements when working with tribal elders. Here are some resources that explain one of our projects in rural Kenya where educating elders on the value and rights of women lead to massive shifts in thinking, traditions, and customary law:

    10-minute video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MoTqSZQVCiY
    Blog: http://www.landesa.org/how-ensuring-womens-rights-to-land-keeps-girls-out-of-child-marriage-in-kenya/
    Photo essay: http://www.landesa.org/kenyas-guardians-justice-women-elders-blog/

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