Expanding Opportunities for Women Farmers

Alhassan Jinbaani, a researcher at the CSIR-Savana Agricultural Research Institute in Ghana and a Grow Further grant recipient, says his work on the Bambara groundnut is meant to improve food security in Ghana’s north. It’s also aimed at improving the lives of one subset of farmers who have been neglected for far too long.

“It’s mostly grown by women in northern Ghana,” he explained to us, “so improving Bambara groundnut production is, actually it’s a necessity that at the end of the day will most be of benefit to a section of society that has been historically marginalized, that is women smallholder farmers.”

Jinbaani is acknowledging something that agricultural researchers have known for years. A huge percentage of smallholder farmers in the world are women. Many rural communities are dominated by women-led households tending to small farm plots of only a couple of hectares in size or less. However, women smallholder farmers seem to be left at a disadvantage compared to male smallholders.

Jinbaani said he’s received special training in gender issues in agriculture, recognizing that women-headed households tend to experience worse food insecurity. Gender has even informed much of his research. “I led a team that was awarded grants by the Tomato Research Center in Lima, Peru to undertake a study on how breeding programs can be responsive to issues of gender,” Jinbaani said, giving one example.

Many organizations arrange their aid projects to specifically lift women smallholder farmers, but the disparities continue.

Overlooked, ignored

A study commissioned by the Gates Foundation gives a good overview of how women smallholder farmers are disadvantaged compared to their male counterparts.

The guide, titled “Improving Opportunities for Women in Smallholder-Based Supply Chains,” was written by Man-Kwun Chan. In it, she lists some common themes that gender-focused research into developing world agriculture has uncovered.

Women smallholder farmers are less likely to be members of farming cooperatives. These cooperatives give farmers valuable access to information, advice, and occasionally resources from government agencies and nonprofit organizations.

In some cases, private companies contract directly with smallholder farmers in deals that give the farmers inputs and technical support in return for the exclusive right to purchase their harvest. Many years ago, Grow Further’s lead journalist witnessed such a scheme in Colombia where a margarine and cooking oil manufacturer contracted directly with smallholder oil palm farmers. One thing that stood out was that all of the farmers involved were men. Chan says this is common. “A study of the fresh fruit and vegetable sector in Kenya showed that fewer than 10 percent of smallholder contracts were with women farmers,” she wrote, “and a separate study of French bean contract farming schemes in Senegal showed that there were no female-headed households involved at all.”

The discrimination runs deeper.

Chan says government-run agriculture extension services designed to help smallholder farmers overwhelmingly connect with men. The same pattern is seen in targeted technical training. There’s also concern that women working smallholder farmers tend to receive the smallest share of even the meager profits these farms generate, despite the work they put into the farm on top of household work.

Some of these disparities could be explained if the vast majority of smallholder farmers were men, but that’s not the case. As Jinbaani pointed out, the farming of some crops like Bambara groundnut is dominated by female farmers. “Clearly, there are social and moral reasons for seeking to redress these imbalances,” Chan says.

Turning the corner

Of course, the disadvantages that women face extend far beyond smallholder farming. They often derive from the social norms that traditional societies have adopted for generations.

In developing countries where smallholder farming is the main source of food production, men tend to dominate all aspects of society. They control the governments. They control the largest companies and large segments of the formal economy. Men in government or academia also tend to be the first points of contact for many nonprofits based in the West looking for ways to help economic conditions in these countries. It’s likely for these reasons and more than systems designed to benefit farmers tend to be directed at men first, even though it’s just as common if not more so to see women toiling in the fields.

In a report published by the Wilson Center, Florence Odiwuor says the barriers thrown before women smallholder farmers are systematic. This benefits nobody—denying women access to the same advantages as men only leads to less food grown and worse food insecurity. Odiwuor says the problem is especially common in Africa.

So how do we change this?

Odiwuor argues that it’s up to governments. “Policymakers should develop or implement national plans to scale-up sustainable support to women smallholders and to create an enabling environment.”

Here at Grow Further, we believe there’s no time to wait for governments to step up. Perhaps one solution is to find and partner with women leaders in agricultural research, women scientists who are in a place to work alongside women smallholder farmers directly to deliver innovations that help them grow more food.

In our next newsletter, Grow Further will feature one such remarkable woman: Dr. Neema Mduma, a Tanzanian computer scientist we’ve partnered with to deliver a technical solution to crop diseases.

 — Grow Further

Photo credits: A woman smallholder farmer in Nepal participating in the United Nations-sponsored Rural Women’s Economic Empowerment Joint Program. UN Women/Narendra Shrestha, Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

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