Recognizing the Role of Women Smallholder Farmers to Achieve Food Security and Development in Eastern Africa
If agriculture is the economic spine of East Africa, then smallholder farmers are its individual vertebrae. They undertake most land utilization and food production and, in a country like Ethiopia, where agriculture accounts for 43 percent of GDP and 80 percent of export earnings, produce nearly all the cereals, pulses and oilseed crops. Similarly in Tanzania and Uganda smallholder farming accounts for about 75 percent of agricultural production and over 75 percent of employment. Smallholders are, in short, critical to food security at all levels.
The fact that many smallholders are women is often overlooked, and wrongly so.
Women constitute at least half the agriculture labor force and perform vital productive roles. Yet even when tenure rights are legally confirmed, traditional social norms restrict access to land and water resources and modern extension services may not reach them due to a lack of recognition and effort on the part of agricultural extension workers and the sector as a whole. Their mountain of challenges also includes lack of access to credit (linked to the lack of tenure rights hindering their capacity to borrow from banks) and, where micro-finance institutions do try and target women, these institutions may have higher transaction costs and therefore charge higher interest rates, making loans for women more unaffordable. Their access to markets is also frequently restricted by limited mobility and lack of market information and as a result they may sell raw products to more local retailers and receive limited income as a result.
The situation of women farmers in GWI program site, Dera district in South Gonder Ethiopia, is a case in point. Most female headed households in Dera belong to a vulnerable group of farmers having the smallest landholding size, an average of less than one hectare of land. Social norms restrict women from tiling land and female headed households are forced to enter into share cropping arrangements, asking male relatives to till the land for them, in return for sharing half of the crops produced on their small plots.
Similar to women elsewhere, women farmers in Dera have limited access to extension services. Most of them don’t visit farmers training centers, either due to workload or because there is a general perception that training on farming techniques is a man’s thing. Female headed households have the lowest rate of uptake of agriculture water management technologies. In Dera, only 8.7% use hand dug wells and 0.74% motorized pumps for irrigation, compared to male headed households, 30.8% and 3.1%, respectively. Most of the women farmers are not members of the most common farmers’ organizations, multi-purpose cooperatives, and do not attend farmers meetings. As a result, they miss vital farming related information communicated to farmers through the cooperatives. Women farmers in Dera are often hard pressed for money to buy inputs, such as, fertilizers and improved seeds. When they face hazards, such as their crops being attacked by pests, they feel helpless, with little clue of about what actions to take and where to get services. They struggle to make a meager earning selling what little they produce, among all these hardships, in the local market, often in smaller quantities. Bigger markets are usually out of reach for them.
This cycle of low productivity traps them in a low input-output model of farming, limiting their future income potential and creating missed opportunities to improve the welfare of their households and surrounding communities. It is an established fact that income earned by women is usually spent on household consumption items, including food and the health and education needs of children. Their success in farming, therefore, can generate positive spinoffs across the economy through contributing to a more productive and skilled labor force that can drive forward economic growth.
What can be done?
Change should begin with the recognition of women as productive farmers by governments and donors alike.
Governments need to take the necessary measures to ensure women’s land tenure rights are recognized legally and de facto where this persists to be a problem. They should also increase gender sensitivity within agricultural extension services, including identifying and promoting technologies that are more suitable for women, especially around the development of more effective management and use of water in agriculture. This should combine with a focus on crops traditionally cultivated by women or crops over which they have more access and control using models of extension support that allow women to combine farming with other unpaid care work responsibilities. It will also be important for governments to invest in labor saving technologies that help to reduce the demands of reproductive work on women’s time.
The Global Water Initiative East Africa recognizes these challenges and aims to support women farmers through evidence-based advocacy at different levels. Our core concern is to achieve greater political commitment to investment in water for agriculture in Ethiopia as well as Tanzania and Uganda. Our strategy to make this change happen is through building a body of evidence with key partners under Learning and Practice Alliances (LPAs) in which women smallholder farmers can articulate their concerns and aspirations and bring their voices into institutions and fora responsible for investing in water for agriculture. We envisage the progressive development of smallholder capacity, particularly of women, to engage with decision makers, to raise their concerns and demand that decision making reflects their needs and priorities in the efficient utilization of water for agriculture.
Program Policy Advisor, Ethiopia