A farmer in Lower Nyando, Kenya, tends to vegetables in her farm.
A farmer in Lower Nyando, Kenya, tends to vegetables in her farm. Photo by K. Trautmann, CGIAR Climate, Flickr

Women in sub-Saharan Africa have the highest average agricultural labour force participation in the world, an estimated 62.5% in 2012, compared with 36.4% globally. In Ghana, for example, women produce 70% of the nation’s food crops; in Kenya, women provide 70% of the agricultural labour.

Yet women farmers often work under very difficult conditions. Many don’t control the land on which they grow their families’ food, and their access to fertilizers, tools, equipment and other inputs is also limited. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization has estimated that if women had access to the same productive resources as men, they could increase farm yields by 20–30%.

What will it take to close this gender gap? That is the subject of a new book, Transforming Gender Relations in Agriculture in Sub-Saharan Africa, published by the Swedish International Agricultural Network Initiative (SIANI) and available in print or as a free, high-resolution PDF download.

Written by agriculture and gender experts – including two from Kenyan NGOs – with contributions from development practitioners across sub-Saharan Africa, the book starts from the premise that transforming gender relations will help to make smallholder agriculture and associated development efforts more effective and efficient, with knock-on effects for a variety of development outcomes.

“We argue that there is a causal relation between more equal gender relations in the household and in the community, and better agricultural outcomes,” the authors write. “The one underpins the other. This is a radical thing to say, because it means that the standard development interventions – more extension services, better information, more fertilizer, better machinery – will not fully achieve their goals unless women and men are on equal footing, able to make rational economic decisions unhindered by gender norms that limit what is “appropriate” for women or for men to do, or to be.”

Learning from Sida’s experience

This book, which was financed by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida), grew out of an effort by Sida to better understand the role of gender in agriculture. Building on lesson learnt from a study of Sida’s experiences, SIANI organized a seminar in April 2011, “Why Women Matter in Agriculture”, followed by a writeshop to discuss case studies from Africa.

The book starts from those case studies, tied together through a conceptual framework and supported by additional research and analysis. Individual chapters focus on institutional settings, data-gathering and analysis, household-level methodologies, community-level methodologies, land and property-rights issues, value chains, and “climate-smart” agriculture. The book ends with suggestions for future research and analysis, and a strong message of optimism about addressing global hunger, gender inequality and poverty: “Yes we can and yes, we have already proven it can be done!”

“Much of what is written about gender in agriculture is overwhelmingly pessimistic, bordering on the tragic,” says Melinda Fones Sundell, the SEI senior research fellow and SIANI senior adviser who coordinated the project. “We hope that with this book we can inspire people, and then especially those who are not gender experts, to realize how important improving gender roles is to raising the productivity of agriculture and the sustainability of agricultural development.”

A timely and important topic

Madeleine Fogde, senior project manager of SIANI, says that given the importance of women in African agriculture, the topic of the book goes to the heart of SIANI’s mission.

“SIANI’s work aims to enhance food security and nutrition, and in major parts of Africa, it’s women who grow the food,” Fogde says. “To keep up with population growth, farmers in Africa will need to double their production. By addressing deep-rooted gender inequalities, we can unleash women’s potential to produce food. We are very happy that we are able to publish a practical book which can used by all – practitioners, policy-makers, the private sector, and students working for sustainable food security and nutrition in Africa.”

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