Women in African Agriculture: Bright Garments and Heavy Hoes 

This year, the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, UN Women, set the theme for International Women’s Day as “Women’s Leadership: Achieving an Equal Future in a COVID-19 World.” The call is to unite and accelerate efforts across all sectors to ensure women have decision-making power, equal pay, share unpaid caregiving, eliminate all forms of violence against women and girls, and access healthcare services that meet their needs. 

In its long-term research and communication efforts, Diinsider emphasizes the advocacy of gender equality. Empowering women’s development is a crucial aspect of driving social change in developing countries. In this original in-depth article, we present stories of African women engaged in agricultural production, analyzing innovative initiatives that inspire the untapped potential of African agricultural development(sources from resopp-sn.org). 

In the remote village of Gitega in Rwanda, 27-year-old Jeanette Uwimanimpaye starts her day at 5 a.m. Sweeping the yard, preparing break fast with firewood, feeding her two children—after completing household chores, Jeanette heads to the farm with only her hands and a hoe. Her husband, Antoine, works as a brickmaker and is too occupied to assist with farm work. Jeanette works alone, preparing the soil for cultivation and subsequent planting. 

Globally, 75% of the impoverished population relies on agriculture for their livelihoods, and many, like Jeanette, are women. In the context of Africa’s changing economic landscape, gender roles in agriculture are shifting. As men move to non-agricultural sectors, women’s participation in agricultural work increases. African women play a crucial role in agricultural production and food security, engaging in tasks such as weeding, planting, cultivating, and harvesting. The feminization of agriculture refers to the phenomenon where women increasingly undertake and complete rural agricultural production and labor. 

However, the process of agricultural feminization in Africa often overlooks the challenges posed by gender differences. Existing gender roles, obstacles in resource access, and gender disparities in skill acquisition continue to restrain the improvement of women’s agricultural productivity in the face of new changes. 

Agricultural Feminization: Gender Roles in African Agricultural Production 

According to a 2014 report by the World Bank and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), women in sub-Saharan Africa produce up to 80% of food for household consumption and local market sales. Women handle tasks such as weeding, sowing, cultivating, and harvesting for crops like rice, wheat, and maize, which account for about 90% of the food consumed by rural Africans. The term “feminization of agriculture” describes the phenomenon where rural agricultural production and labor are increasingly undertaken and completed by women. 

However, the feminization of agriculture in Africa does not necessarily signify an improvement in the status of women. Women in African agriculture often find themselves in disadvantaged positions within the broader context. There is a significant income disparity between the agricultural and non-agricultural sectors, with agriculture at the lower end of comparative earnings. The labor-intensive nature of women-operated subsistence farming is often conflated with domestic work, and decision-making power is still held by men engaged in non-agricultural work. Gender disparities in various aspects, including land rights, liquidity, access to education and training, and funding, persist in African agricultural production(quotes from resopp-sn). 

Over the past decade, Africa’s agricultural growth rate has maintained at 3% to 4%. However, with a population growth rate of around 3%, the growth rate of the agricultural workforce in Africa is approximately 3.5%. This indicates a relative inadequacy in agricultural growth compared to the growth of the agricultural workforce. To achieve effective poverty reduction and socioeconomic transformation, Africa needs higher agricultural growth rates. Enhancing women’s agricultural productivity is a key factor in boosting agricultural yields. Closing the gender gap can increase yields on women-operated farms by 20-30%, leading to a 2.5%-4% increase in total agricultural output in developing countries. 

African women face limited opportunities and avenues for obtaining productive resources such as land, credit, and agricultural information. Additionally, due to social and cultural customs, they are susceptible to poverty, violence, and discrimination. Striking a balance between farm work and childcare responsibilities further complicates their situation. Gender differences also impede African women’s access to social protection measures. About 73% of the global population, mostly in rural areas, cannot access adequate social protection plans. 

Why Are There Gender Barriers in African Agricultural Production? 

Gender inequalities in African agricultural production stem from a combination of policy factors, economic reasons, and social and cultural influences. However, these three factors are not entirely independent; they are interconnected. Policy formulation affects women’s income, while hidden cultural customs and traditional beliefs cast shadows behind policies. 

Generally, in many African countries, there is strict gender division in agricultural policies, and gender inequality is significantly influenced by land policies. The three main forms of family agricultural production in Africa are: 

Women are responsible for the majority of staple food crop production, and the food area is considered the “women’s area.” 

Men and women jointly cultivate, but the land belongs to men, and male household heads are responsible for crop output. 

Men are responsible for cultivation, and women are responsible for processing. 

Taking land ownership rights in Ethiopia as an example, the land tenure system fails to provide reliable land rights for women. Before the 1974 land revolution, land ownership was mainly concentrated in communal entities, government grants, and churches. During this period, over 70% of fertile land was concentrated in the hands of 1% of owners, and most women were among those who lost land. In regions practicing polygamy, subsequent wives were excluded from the registration process, thus depriving them of corresponding land rights. Similar to the inequality in land ownership rights, the highly insecure land rights of women lead to uneven land distribution and low productivity(sources from resopp-sn). 

Industrialization is re-evaluated as a key component of economic transformation in 21st-century Africa. In January 2008, the 11th African Union Summit prioritized industrialization and approved the Accelerated Industrial Development of Africa (AIDA). However, economic transformation has not fully included agricultural women, and existing land policies limit them from capitalizing on their cultivated land for income. The meager income women earn from informal, low-wage, or unpaid work is insufficient to support their investments in agricultural production, such as fertilizers, seeds, and tools. 

In deeply rooted patriarchal societies in rural Africa, land inheritance under patriarchy often involves the inheritance of the father’s land by male descendants. Additionally, educational beliefs under patriarchy result in high female illiteracy rates, limited engagement in both farm work and social interactions, and subsequently restricted opportunities for non-agricultural work. 

Reforming Land Ownership to Empower Women 

Utilizing Big Data to Empower Agriculture 

Despite abundant land resources in Africa, the contradictions between population growth, soil degradation, urban expansion, and the trend of low land productivity increase land pressure in Africa. Additionally, in the process of transitioning from agriculture to manufacturing and service-based economies, African governments find it necessary to transfer relevant land rights to other producers. Therefore, some African governments have started working on land tenure regularization and management. For example: 

(1) Rwandan Government 

As a densely populated country in Africa, Rwanda took the lead in initiating the National Land Tenure Regularization (LTR) plan. After extensive pilot programs, the plan was implemented nationwide. 

The specifics of land tenure regularization involve government surveyors delineating land boundaries in the presence of landowners and their neighbors. The boundaries are marked in the field, witnessed by the parties involved, and then recorded on aerial photographs to create receipts. These receipts include information about female members of the household, aiming to protect women’s property ownership or interests. The information from the receipts is transcribed into a register and digitized at a central office after symbolic fees are paid, resulting in the issuance of formal land ownership certificates. 

Rwanda’s land tenure regularization plan aims to eliminate gender barriers in land use, enhance the security of women’s land rights, and provide a reference framework for other African countries. It may also lead to substantial economic benefits and gender benefits for Rwanda. 

(2) Ethiopian Government 

In 2016, the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) created a series to reflect on gender gaps in land rights to commemorate “Pi Day” on March 14 each year. In some Asian countries, joint land ownership is rare, with Bangladesh having only a 2% joint land ownership rate. In contrast, joint land ownership is more common in some African countries due to relevant policies. 

Taking Ethiopia as an example, the country officially implemented joint land registration in 2003. The government required spouses to jointly hold agricultural ownership certificates, formalizing women’s rights to cultivate their land. Joint land registration is certified by the Land Use and Administration Committees (LACs) and requires the participation of at least one female committee member. It specifies that all joint owners (e.g., husband and wife) equally own the land in their names, granting women equal land rights. Land use rights can be transferred to family members through inheritance. 

According to a study conducted by Stein T. Holden and Mesfin Tilahun in 2017, analyzing land registration data from sampled regions in Ethiopia, the share of female ownership in the region accounted for a high 48.8% in the total sample (30,000 hectares). 

While joint ownership does not necessarily mean equal rights for female and male owners, it is a crucial first step in improving gender disparities in land rights. 

To empower women in African agricultural production, considerations for gender differences in policy formulation are crucial to ensure more equal access to production resources. Additionally, technological support such as big data and digital services can enhance the agricultural productivity of women, alleviating their dual role as farmers and homemakers. 

(1) Integration of Big Data and Precision Customization 

In 2018, the World Food Programme (WFP), in collaboration with Gallup and FAO, initiated the Gender Equality for Food Security (GE4FS) campaign. 

GE4FS has covered 17 countries and combines the FAO’s Food Insecurity Experience Scale (FIES) with answers from over 17,000 respondents regarding “decision-making, financial self-sufficiency, freedom from violence, reproductive freedom, and unpaid labor” to assess their empowerment.

Summary and Outlook 

In general, women from small towns in Kenya have lower empowerment levels than rural women, with the most significant differences observed in areas such as protection against violence, reproductive freedom, and financial self-sufficiency, especially in terms of savings. However, the differences in decision-making between women in small towns and rural areas are relatively small (see Table 5). 

The analysis and application of agricultural big data can better identify and delve into issues, aiding decision-makers in formulating effective policies and training programs. The big data analysis of women’s empowerment in small towns and rural areas of Kenya highlights some issues that may be overlooked due to subjective judgments, such as the assumption that the empowerment level of women in small towns should be higher than that of rural women, which is not the case. 

Jacqueline Paul, Senior Gender Advisor at the World Food Programme, emphasizes the crucial role of good data in understanding and ultimately eliminating the complex relationship between hunger, inequality, and the loss of power faced by women and girls in many parts of the world. 

(2) Integration of Algorithmic Platforms with Agricultural Knowledge 

WeFarm is a peer-to-peer service that helps farmers share information with each other and gain more agricultural knowledge on a knowledge-sharing platform. It provides algorithmic services for small farmers in East African countries such as Tanzania, Kenya, and Uganda. 

One of WeFarm’s breakthroughs is breaking the limitations of internet access. Farmers can engage in knowledge exchange through SMS on their mobile phones. Farmers in remote areas, with limited access to valuable information or advice, can use SMS, a basic and concise communication method, to share or seek solutions to problems. 

For instance, Doris Nederi, a small farmer from Kenya, used SMS to send a question about controlling plant diseases to the WeFarm platform. Whitney Kakos, a volunteer translator in London, translated Doris’s question into Spanish and forwarded it to farmers in Latin America. Diony Jimrnez, a coffee farmer in Peru, received the message, provided advice based on his cultivation experience, and responded: “Prune regularly to protect the farm from pests and apply organic materials to improve soil structure.” 

Enhancing the Status of Women in Agriculture 

Igniting the Potential for Agricultural Development in Africa 

Focusing on the gender barriers and development needs faced by African women in agriculture will significantly increase the productivity of women in agricultural production, meeting the development needs of African agriculture. 

Improving the status of African women involves addressing gender differences in the feminization of agriculture. This will enhance the capabilities of rural women, promoting their position in African society and the labor market. 

Moreover, enabling African women to access agricultural resources is crucial for achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 5, “Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.” It also contributes to other goals, such as “End poverty (SDG1)” and “End hunger (SDG2).” 

Jacques Diouf, former Director-General of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), states, “Gender equality is not only a noble ideal but is also crucial for agricultural development and food security. We must promote gender equality and empower women in agriculture sustainably to win the fight against hunger and poverty.” 

In conclusion, African women need to recognize their potential. The future development of African agriculture depends not only on improving the status of women in agriculture but increasingly on the capabilities of women. Therefore, women should strive for various forms of education, seek independence, and break through the barriers formed by customs, taboos, and discrimination to pursue their own transformation and advancement. 

Leave a Comment