Regional: Vital to empower women farmers

Regional: Vital to empower women farmers

Date: April 5, 2012
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Empowering women farmers in developing countries is crucial to solving the world’s food problems as an era of food price spikes looms, according to the head of a panel which advises governments and donors on agricultural development in sub-Saharan Africa.

“If we are going to feed the world and, in particular, if Africa is going to be fed, we need every tool we can lay our hands on to make that happen, and one component … is to ensure that women fulfil their potential as farmers,” Gordon Conway, chairman of the Montpellier Panel, said as the group launched a report on African agriculture in March.

“Women are constrained by limited access to productive resources and they don’t have enough access to assets and if they did they could increase yields on farms by 20% to 30%, which would have a really big impact,” he said.

If women raised their production by this amount, the agricultural output of developing countries would rise by between 2,5% and 4%, potentially slashing the number of undernourished people by 12% to 17%, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). It is therefore crucial that women’s needs and rights are at the heart of all rural development programmes instead of being added on as an afterthought, Mr Conway said.

“This isn’t an extra – this is fundamental to achieving growth with resilience,” he said.
Women account for about 43% of agricultural labourers in developing countries, according to the FAO.

But poor access to resources such as land, water, fertilisers, seeds and technical knowledge was limiting their productivity, Mr Conway said. “In many ways it’s a cultural thing. Men tend to have the rights to land in particular and the rights to other resources … the woman are doing the work but she hasn’t got real access to what she needs,” he said.

“I think (women) often don’t get good advice, they are dismissed and … everywhere you go in Africa, particularly in rural villages, you can see that women are often regarded as second-class citizens.”

The majority of agriculture development officers, extension workers – government advisers who educate farmers about how to grow and market their crops – and bank employees in Africa are male but a growing number of female plant breeders and agro-dealers, who run shops selling goods like seed and fertiliser, was evidence of a shift away from male dominance of agriculture, Mr Conway said.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was training African agro-dealers to advise customers, in the process bypassing male officials, he said. This was important in helping to ensure sustainable food security in Africa in an age of food price volatility, he said.

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