The crucial role of women in African agriculture

Women in Africa are key contributors to economic growth and global food security, but they still face many challenges, according to Maureen Bandama, agricultural project consultant at IQ Logistica Investments.

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Speaking at the 4th Annual Women in Agric/Agribiz Summit 2016 in Johannesburg, Bandama said that efforts to reduce gender disparities would allow women in the agricultural sector to contribute more efficiently to food production.

The dominant narrative of women in agriculture, specifically in Africa, is one of perpetual struggle and cyclical poverty. We seldom hear about their successes and triumphs. Yet the role played by African women in agribusiness is as complex as it is significant.

Not all women in agriculture are subsistence or smallholder farmers, or provide their labour to the industry. Across the agricultural spectrum, you also find commercial producers, processors, entrepreneurs, scientists and policy makers.

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It is a challenge to define the crucial role of African women in agriculture and agribusiness, largely because it is such a rich and heterogeneous group of people within a large and non-homogeneous locality. For instance, even within the smallholder farmers’ group, there is a great deal of diversity.

Sizes of farms differ, and farmers’ objectives range from production as the main source of food and income, to production as an extra source of food and income, to production for leisure. African women’s access to resources and information, as well as their needs, can be as diverse as they are. But they all make some contribution to the sector and the economy.

African women’s status in agriculture
There are significant gender disparities in the way that key resources essential for success in agriculture are distributed across Africa. Access to land, inputs, assets, markets, information and knowledge, time, decision-making authority and income still present a challenge for women in the sector.

Studies by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, Farming First, and other organisations consistently show that throughout the world, women farmers control less land and make far less use of improved technologies and inputs such as fertiliser. They tend to have less access to credit and insurance and are less likely to receive extension services, which are the main source of information on new technologies in the developing world.

They are thus generally less well-resourced, and operate largely in the informal economy.

Despite women accounting for 60% to 80% of smallholder farmers in the developing world, because of legal and cultural constraints in terms of land inheritance, ownership and use, fewer than 20% of landholders are women. This figure varies widely between countries – from less than 5% in Mali to over 30% in Botswana. However, in sub- Saharan Africa, on average only 15% of landholders are women and they receive less than 10% of available credit and 7% of extension services.

These figures could be higher for South Africa because women can legally own and inherit land. But even in South Africa, historical challenges with regard to land ownership in general still leave women at a disadvantage. Consequently, female farmers are for the most part producing relatively small volumes of produce on relatively small plots of land.

Limited access to agricultural extension services prevents many women from adopting the technologies that would help them increase their yields. As a result, an estimated yield gap between men and women of 20% to 30% has been observed, and this hinders the growth of the agricultural sector in many developing countries.

However, the vast majority of studies indicate that women would be able to achieve the same yields as men if they had equal access to production resources and services. These include technologies that reduce time spent in production. Of the 250 million tons of crops grown in sub-Saharan Africa in 2012, a total of 75% were grown by smallholder farmers and 75% of these were weeded by hand. Between 50% and 70% of these farmers’ time was spent on weeding, and 90% of women smallholder farmers carry out this task themselves.

Bridging this gender gap would not only boost the yields and therefore food and nutrition security globally, but would free women up to participate in other economically viable activities that contribute to the economy.

Cultural norms that perpetuate the perception that knowledge has to be transmitted to men first are some of the constraints. Other factors include discrimination, the lack of acknowledgement of women’s role in agricultural supply chains, and the lower proportion of women employed as extension service workers. When a significant proportion of the population is unable to participate at optimal levels, it means that everyone is losing out.

Accelerating transformation
Improving transformation, removing infrastructure constraints, and encouraging rural women’s participation in farmers’ organisations and cooperatives can help to achieve economies of scale to access markets and reduce isolation, while building confidence, leadership and security.

An increase in a woman’s income of only $10 (about R137) achieves the same improvements in her children’s nutrition and health as an increase in a man’s income of $110 (about R1 500). By keeping the incomes of women lower than they should be, not improving the operating environment, or not creating an enabling environment, we are doing Africa a disservice.

Globally, female farmers receive only 5% of all agricultural extension services, and only 15% of the world’s extension agents are women. In addition, only 10% of total aid received by the agricultural and fisheries sectors goes to women.

The future
The greatest challenges of the 21st century are the increasing demand on food, water and energy from a growing population, and climate change. Agriculture and smallholders are central to both, perhaps nowhere more so than in Africa.
Therefore, opportunities for women in agriculture and agribusiness lie in understanding the challenges of tomorrow and positioning themselves to meet these challenges. These opportunities are as diverse as the women in the sector.

Currently, smallholders manage only 12% of all agricultural land, but produce more than 80%, in value terms, of the world’s food (FAO, 2015). The latest estimates show that feeding a world population of 9,1 billion people by 2050 will require raising overall food production by about 70% (FAO, 2015).

In developing countries, production will need to almost double. This means significant increases in the production of several key commodities. Annual grain production, for instance, will have to grow by almost one billion tons.

At the same time, efforts to achieve food security will need to fulfil environmental and social sustainability objectives. However, in addition to the opportunities that exist for women in food production, vast opportunities exist beyond traditional food and fibre, as there is a parallel need for feed and fuel.

A more enabling environment should be created for women to fully and more efficiently participate in agricultural markets. This has to involve removing the legal and cultural barriers to ownership and access to land, information and extension services, inputs and other resources. In addition, more women need to participate further along the value chain.

More women are also required as processors, wholesalers and retailers. In addition, women are needed in agricultural education and training, research and extension services, as well as supply chain logistics, technology, finance, boardrooms, and policy-making and implementation. – Siyanda Sishuba. 

The views expressed in our weekly opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Farmer’s Weekly.

Phone Maureen Bandama at IQ Logistica Investments (Pty) Ltd on 012 644 0838 or visit