In Africa, Women grow most of the crops and perform most of the farm labor, as they do in much of the developing world, proving that the hand that rocks the cradle also tills the field.
It is hard work, and they do it with distinct disadvantages because, as U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton noted in a recent speech, women farmers “are very often denied access to the best seeds and fertilizer and other assets” that would yield bigger crops.
The feminization of agriculture, as academics have called it, is a trend that has accelerated as the AIDS epidemic claims men’s lives and as male breadwinners leave the farm to seek better-paid work in cities. Women “are left managing a very unproductive and risky asset,” said David Kauck of the International Center for Research on Women, a Washington nonprofit that studies how to overcome the problems poor women face.
Women often farm with rudimentary tools and without the advice of government extension agents, who can show farmers how to get more from the land. Often the family farm is not in the woman’s name, so she cannot mortgage the land or get crop insurance, said Kauck, a senior gender and agriculture specialist. “And often they don’t control the sale of their produce. They don’t see what it sells for. They don’t capture the gains of their labor.”
With eradication of extreme hunger and poverty topmost on the list of the Millennium Development Goals, the United States, the U.N. World Food Programme (WFP), major foundations and development agencies all have made securing equitable help for women farmers a cornerstone of their anti-hunger strategies. It is embedded in Feed the Future, the Obama administration’s $3.5 billion effort to help poor countries provide enough food for their populations, principally by investing in agricultural development.
Women farmers are “the untapped solution to this problem,” said William Garvelink, a senior U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) official who helps coordinate Feed the Future. As their crops and profits grow, women are “far more likely to spend those gains improving their families’ access to health, education and nutrition,” said Garvelink, the former U.S. ambassador to the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
U.S.-supported programs are helping poultry farmers in Kenya such as Eunice Mukai raise healthy chickens. Mukai sells vaccines to farmers throughout her district in eastern Kenya. The Kenyan Ministry of Livestock helped her get electricity so she would be able to refrigerate the vaccine. Jennifer Grems of Winrock International, a nonprofit organization that works with the farmers, said, “Raising chickens is one of the few agricultural activities women in Kenya are able to manage without approval from a husband, father or brother.”
Agnes Moraa, who grows maize and other crops on a .4-hectare farm in Nyansiongo, Kenya, doubled her yields after training by ACDI/VOCA, another nonprofit. “Farming has changed for me,” Moraa said. “Before, I would plant leftover seed. I would put three or four seeds in every hole. I knew nothing about fertilizer, insecticide or herbicide. I have learned the value of good seed.”
A third Kenyan farmer, Evelyne Wanyera, said, “Initially, I didn’t take farming seriously, just grew maize and dry beans for my family’s meals.” But after training by AGMARK and the Kenyan Ministry of Agriculture, “I realized that farming can be a business.” She opened a successful farm store in Bungoma County in west Kenya, selling seeds and grinding maize into flour. Instead of growing just five to 10 bags of grain on the family’s small plot, she now leases 4.5 hectares from a neighbor and fills up to 300 bags. And farmers throughout the community now are getting higher prices by doing their own milling at Wanyera’s facility.
One study cited by the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute found that when women farmers in Kenya have the same education, experience, seeds and fertilizer as their male counterparts, “they increase their yields for maize, beans and cowpeas by 22 percent.”
“We will integrate gender concerns into all of our investments and help partner countries and implementing partners strengthen their capacity to consider and address the negative impacts of unequal access to and control over assets that affect women involved in all stages of the agricultural value chain,” USAID said in guidance for the Feed the Future initiative.
The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization and the WFP last month announced a nearly 10 percent drop in the number of people who live in chronic hunger. But the number still represents almost one-sixth of humankind. The proportion of undernourished people remains highest in sub-Saharan Africa: 30 percent.
Progress is being made, in part with efforts to help small farmers — most of them women — reap more of what they sow, WFP Executive Director Josette Sheeran told the National Press Club in September.