Agriculture: Why Africa should rely on women

International 15 June, 2022

Women play a central role in Africa’s food supply, but they are often overlooked in the agricultural sector. Women suffer from unequal access to land, finance and agricultural equipment, which greatly reduces their productivity. At a time when the continent is suffering greatly from rising prices for wheat and means of production, the consequences of the war in Ukraine and the unprecedented severe drought that has engulfed some regions, the question arises of supporting women living in rural areas.

In a study entitled «Agriculture in Africa: The Difference between Facts and Myths», published in 2018, the World Bank identified the first difficulty: the lack of reliable data on their real presence in the agricultural sector. It is widely estimated that they provide 60 to 80 percent of the continent’s agricultural workforce, but the numbers vary greatly from country to country, from 24 percent in Niger to 56 percent in Uganda.

«They make up about 53% of those working in the region», – says Jemima Newkey, head of the Economic emancipation department at UN Women. A gray area that says a lot about the precariousness of their position in the mostly informal and very unequal sector.

The second difficulty: limited access to agricultural equipment (tools, seeds, resources, etc.) that would allow them to increase their productivity. Questionable: credit systems that are not adapted. «From having to get their husband’s permission to claim it, to an injunction against paying the down payment from the very beginning of their project, even if the income is still missing, the dysfunctions are still numerous», – regrets Jemima Newkey.

The system even sometimes just breaks down. «When micro-loans are only for women, their husbands can ask them to borrow for them, so they are the ones who will get into debt», – explains Marlene Elias, coordinator of gender studies at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT).

Finally, they often do not have access to land. According to the UN, less than 15% of landowners in Africa are women (20% in the world). In many countries, this access is still carried out through men. However, the rules of transfer in the event of the death of a husband, father or divorce are generally unfavorable for women.

Some governments, such as Ethiopia or Uganda, encourage spouses to jointly register land. «But the law alone is not enough. In some communities, the fact that a woman receives a title deed may be condemned. It is necessary to fight all the discrimination of the system, trying to transform [social] norms», – recalls Marlene Elias.

Women take on tasks that reduce their productivity. Work in the field is often complemented by painful work with firewood and water. «The overwhelming majority of surveys show that they work more than men, taking into account unpaid work», – confirms socioeconomist Isabelle Droit from the Development Research Institute (IRD): «They bear particularly heavy loads, taking care of children and the elderly – care without which society could not function».

Responsible for cooking, they are the guarantors of the nutrition of others. When they acquire autonomy, they tend to invest more in their family. «It has been demonstrated that investing in women’s empowerment has positive effects in terms of productivity, as well as in terms of nutrition and education of children», – confirms Marlene Elias.

According to donors and international organizations, increasing women’s agricultural potential will improve household life and increase food security. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that if women and men are guaranteed equal access to the means of production, agricultural yields in developing countries will increase by 2.5–4%. In turn, the number of people suffering from hunger worldwide may decrease by 17%.

Projects aimed at improving the representation of rural women in decision-making bodies are also multiplying. This includes educating them and giving them more space in public policy. «We need budgets allocated to gender issues in ministries and a feminist view of the problems they face», – says Jemima Newkey.

A joint report by the International Research Institute for Food Policy (Ifpri) and the Global Health 50/50 initiative, which defines and deciphers gender policy and practice in international organizations, notes that women make up only 6% of the CEOs and board chairmen in the sample. Out of 52 organizations dealing with food systems in low and middle-income countries.

To fill the gaps in this area, Jemima Newkey has been working since 2021 to create a coalition to «Make Food Systems Work for Women and Girls», including UN agencies, civil society movements, the academic sector, etc., with the aim of including gender equality and women’s empowerment in food systems. An annual index has already been developed to measure the place of women in leadership positions, gender policy and its results in agricultural sector organizations.

Finally, many experts call for rethinking the assistance intended for rural women, involving their communities, in order to avoid blockages. Because the recommendations of international donors regularly run into social norms. «It is necessary to associate men with the definition of these programs and convince them that they are also interested in these developments», – concludes Isabelle Droit.