For years, the global development community has talked about the importance of gender equality and women’s empowerment in agricultural development. Yet, in Africa and other regions where agriculture is the backbone of the economy and nearly half of farmers are women, a persistent gender gap continues to constrain the ability of women farmers to earn a livelihood and feed their families.
No society can achieve its potential when half its population is marginalized. But the problem is even more serious in Africa, where many farming families must cope not only with challenging growing conditions and limited resources, but also with rising temperatures and other impacts of climate change.
Breaking the cycle of gender inequality faced by women farmers is essential not only to ensuring the health and economic stability of millions of farming families, but also to ensuring the world can feed a global population expected to grow by 2 billion by 2050.
A recent report by the Food and Agriculture Organization found that if women farmers in Africa had the same access as men to productive land, credit, extension services, markets, and inputs – like seeds, fertilizer and tools – they could increase the yields on their farms by 20-30%, and boost agricultural output in developing countries by 2.5-4%. And we know that there are strong links between growth in a country’s agriculture sector and growth in the wider economy.
This is easier said than done, of course. Deeply engrained social and cultural factors make it difficult for women farmers in many countries to produce as much as men.
One of the biggest barriers, according to a recent report by the World Bank and the ONE Campaign, was lack of access to labor. This shows up in many forms. Women farmers have a harder time finding helpers to work on their farms. When they do find help, the workers often aren’t as productive as they are when working for men.
One way we’re helping address this is by funding promising ideas for affordable, low-tech labor-saving tools. For example, Ricardo Capúcio de Resende of Universidade Federal de Viçosa in Brazil is designing a simple, lightweight seeder that can plant two crops at once. With only two rotating parts, this seeder can be operated and easily maintained by women farmers in sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere.
Another critical issue is the degree of control women have over the land they farm, and the crops they work hard to tend. In some communities, when crop yields are good, men simply harvest the crops and spend the proceeds. This was that case, we learned, with an improved variety of legume known as pigeon pea, an important source of nutrients in parts of Africa. As hundreds of thousands of acres were planted with an improved variety of pigeon pea and yields went up, only three in 10 women were able to keep the proceeds from crops they had sowed and tended.
As a result, there was less income available for women to invest in nutritious food, health care, and education for their children. And we know that a child whose family budget is controlled by the mother is 20% more likely to survive.
Educating farming families about the consequences of these actions and behaviors is something that can only occur at the local and country level. However, we are working with partners to develop solutions that might help – for example, by engaging husbands and wives in structured conversations about household expenditures and responsibilities and ways they can work together to make decisions about how to spend family income.
To feed a growing world and help poor farming faming families create a better livelihood for themselves, the development community needs to invest in new and better seeds and other technologies that result in substantially higher crop yields. We must also do a better job of working together to articulate a sustainable productivity agenda and roadmap, with clearly defined targets and indicators that provide every country with a pathway to greater agricultural productivity. And, perhaps most importantly, we must work together to move beyond lip service in dealing with the problem of gender inequity in agriculture.
Pamela Anderson is director of agricultural development at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
As the 2014 Borlaug Dialogue takes place October 15-17 in Des Moines, Iowa, the World Food Prize Foundation and CGIAR Fund are co-hosting an online, high-level op-ed series titled The Greatest Challenge in Human History: Sustainably Feeding 9 Billion People By 2050. This will highlight how agricultural research and development are not only tied to food security and nutrition, but that they are also central to achieving many of the forthcoming UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
How can we sustainably feed 9 billion people by 2050? - Kenneth Quinn, World Food Prize Foundation and Jonathan Wadsworth, CGIAR
The future of food and farming depends on climate action today - Jose Graziano da Silva, FAO, Kanayo F. Nwanze, International Fund for Agricultural Development and Ertharin Cousin, WFP
Progressing crop research to impact at scale - Marco Ferroni, Syngenta For Sustainable Agriculture
The face of hunger is not partisan - Rajiv Shah, USAID
Delivering on Norman Borlaug’s call to action - Andrew Youn, One Acre Fund and Tony Kalm, CGIAR Fund
Elevating civil society from advisers to partners for a food secure world - Tony Hall, Alliance to End Hunger
New wheat breeds can help avert food security disaster - Sanjaya Rajaram, 2014 World Food Prize Laureate
Rising to "the greatest challenge in human history" - Jose Graziano da Silva, FAO
Achieving zero hunger with help from smallholder farmers - Ertharin Cousin, WFP
Sustained investment in global agricultural research key to feeding 9 bln people sustainably - Gebisa Ejeta, Purdue University
Africa will feed 9 billion by 2050 - Pedro A. Sanchez, Earth Institute, Columbia University