It’s time to rebalance the scales for African researchers in agriculture, says Jo Seed.

Jo Seed

During the launch of the Montpellier Panel Report last year I was inspired by the talk on women in agriculture presented by Vicki Wilde. She is the Director of the CGIAR’s Gender and Diversity Programme and the African Women in Agricultural Research and Development (AWARD) project – a professional development program that strengthens the research and leadership skills of African women in agricultural science.

After Vicki’s speech, something inside me seemed to click and I decided from this point that I really wanted to help make a difference for women in African agriculture. 

My first point of research was to read the Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) report, The State of Food and Agriculture 2010-11, which states that women comprise, on average, 43 per cent of the agricultural labour force in developing countries, yet they consistently have less access to helpful resources and opportunities for growth.  They operate smaller farms, keep fewer livestock, have a greater workload and are usually left with the lower status activities such as carrying water and fetching firewood. Women also usually receive lower wages for the same work than men, even when they have the same qualifications and experience.

I was also saddened to learn that most educated women in Africa don’t seem to make it past bachelor’s degree level. It is also very worrying that only one in seven women agricultural scientists are in leadership roles, according to a study conducted with the Agricultural Science and Technology Indicators initiative that collates data on agricultural R&D investments and capacity in developing countries.

The benefits of closing the gap

Wilde stated at a recent Agropolis Foundation event that by closing this huge gender gap we could lift 100-150 million people out of hunger. She believes that with investment, awareness raising and a deeper focus on these issues, we can improve the working lives of African women, thus improving African agricultural development as a whole.

For example, the FAO report also states that plot yields managed by women are lower than those managed by men. Extensive evidence shows that this is not because women are worse farmers than men. They simply do not have access to the same inputs such as fertilisers, seeds and tools. If they did, their yields would be on a par with men’s and agricultural production would increase. Closing the input gap on the agricultural land held by women could result in an increase in production of 20–30 percent on their land, which in turn would contribute towards food security as a whole.

Also, closing the gender gap in agriculture would generate broader social and economic benefits by strengthening women’s direct access to, and control over, resources and incomes. Evidence from Africa (PDF), Asia (PDF) and elsewhere consistently shows that families benefit when women have greater status and power within the household. Increased control over income gives women a stronger bargaining position over economic decisions and when women have more influence over these decisions; their families allocate more income to food, health, education, as well as children’s clothing and nutrition.

Fast-track fellowship

AWARD’s goal is to empower women to contribute more effectively to poverty alleviation and food security in sub-Saharan Africa and offers two-year fellowships focused on establishing mentoring relationships by assigning a mentor to every woman researcher – a senior scientist or other professional who helps them realise their career goals – because young female researchers sometimes struggle to find role models of women who have already succeeded.

AWARD also helps women researchers to develop their leadership skills so they can achieve positions of influence and have a role in determining what research is conducted and how precious research funds are spent.

African women face particular challenges in continuing their science careers once they have a family to raise. To combat this, AWARD invites nursing mothers to bring their babies along to their training courses; they also offer a child-minding service and there is no cut-off age (usually 35) to enrol – allowing older women to fulfil their career aspirations.

Rebuilding the foundations

To me, gender is not just a side issue to a wider agenda, but in fact one of the most important issues to address in improving agricultural development in Africa. It seems to be a fundamental issue in Africa that governments, the private sector and the public are all failing to act on.

How can we build both agricultural and educational systems that work on such a shaky foundation?  How can we improve food security if half the population (and almost half of the farmers in Africa) are being so disempowered?

I believe that by championing initiatives such as AWARD and by further much needed time and investment in agricultural research and development for African women, we can create a paradigm shift which would help gain the support of the men out there and other organisations which might usually be resistant towards a gender revolution.

As Kofi Annan, Chairman of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa and former Secretary-General of the United Nations, once said “a green revolution in Africa will happen only if there is also a gender revolution”, a statement that I am only to eager to agree with.

About Jo Seed

Jo has been the Project Administrator for Ag4Impact since July 2009. She has previously worked for the Universities of Sussex, Central Lancashire, and Manchester.

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