Our award-winning reporting has moved

Context provides news and analysis on three of the world’s most critical issues:

climate change, the impact of technology on society, and inclusive economies.

Without women, African agriculture won't withstand climate change

by Sophia Huyer, CCAFS
Tuesday, 8 March 2016 07:22 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Don't look at rural women as passive victims of climate impacts - they can be the driving force of efforts to adapt

The outcomes agreed at the U.N. climate change summit in Paris, which will shape future policies, fell short on a critical issue. Mentions of gender were mostly confined to how climate change will impact women, and how they are considered “vulnerable populations”.

Discussions on how to support women to actively address and participate in actions to reduce planet-warming emissions and adapt to climate change impacts were largely absent.

Agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa stands to be one of the sectors worst hit by climate change and is among the least prepared.

Given that 60 percent of women in sub-Saharan Africa, Oceania and Southeast Asia are engaged in agriculture, it stands to reason that they need to be crucial players in equipping their countries for the extreme weather events they are already witnessing - which are decreasing food production and livelihoods, and making it more difficult for women to meet their daily needs.

New research out this week from the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) and partners predicts that sub-Saharan Africa will have to significantly transform around 30 percent of its agricultural areas by the end of the century to cope with climate change.

That means switching to improved or more resilient crops, or even moving out of crop-based agriculture all together. The first of its kind to put a timeline on interventions that must be made, the research exposes the need for some regions to have transformed by as early as 2025.

But any meaningful transformation is not likely to happen without the active engagement of women, who take on a tremendous proportion of farm work. So how can we ensure they are part of the process?

Involve women in seed selection

Technologies introduced to adapt to climate change need to suit women’s priorities. Feeding the family is often their domain, so when introducing new crop varieties that will withstand drought and heat, women want to know how these varieties will fit in with their practices. 

How long will they take to cook? Will they taste the same? How easy is it to grind the yam or cassava? How easy will it be to harvest the chickpeas? Arranging culinary tests with female farmers has been shown to improve the uptake of these new varieties and should form a critical part of the process. Women’s knowledge of crop breeding has also been used to test a wider range of characteristics, such as disease-resistant coffee varieties.

There’s a time and a place for climate information

Making climate information available to farmers is a critical phase of transformation. Yet research has shown that women may want to receive different kinds of climate and agricultural information in different places, and at different times than men. 

For example, a woman in Senegal told me she prefers information by mobile phone rather than rural radio, because she can bring her phone with her as she works in the field or goes to fetch water. She then shares farming updates verbally with her neighbours who do not have mobile phones.

In other situations, women prefer receiving information by radio or through community-based organisations, while men tend to receive information through more formal channels.

Other Senegalese women we interviewed said they wanted forecasts about the end of the rainy season, given that they often plant later than men. Women also prefer information about climate-smart methods that relate to their roles both on the farm and within the household, such as post-harvest processing.

Bring women into the innovation process

Women farmers have an important role to play in devising local innovations that will help communities adapt to climate change. In a recent project in Honduras, women designed coffee agroforestry systems where trees fruit at the same time as the coffee crop. This allows families with distant farms to relocate en masse to harvest all crops at the same time.

They were also involved in the re-design of Eco-Justa eco-stoves over several iterations, ensuring the stoves met their needs and so increasing their adoption. The resulting product requires up to 50 percent less firewood, an important factor for women who need to collect the wood in the first place. As well as producing significantly lower levels of carbon monoxide, the stoves were cleaner and reduced cooking time.

Women should not be considered passive victims of climate change. This International Women’s Day, let us recognise what a powerful role they can play as partners in climate adaptation, and in securing our future food supply.

Sophia Huyer is the gender and social inclusion research leader at the CGIAR Research Program for Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS).