A woman cooking in Lipunga, Malawi. Women in Africa often bear the burden of farming to feed their families, while men tend to raise cash crops or leave for work in the cities. (Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters)


Africa - Malawi +

Renewed Focus on Women Farmers

By Megan Rowling Reuters

December 29, 2008

LONDON: Like many other African women, Mazoe Gondwe is her family's main food provider. Lately, she has struggled to farm her plot in Malawi as the unpredictability of rain makes her hard life even tougher.

"Now we can't just depend on rain-fed agriculture, so we plant two crops - one watered with rain and one that needs irrigating," she explained. "But irrigation is back-breaking and can take four hours a day."

Gondwe, who was flown by the development agency ActionAid to Poland for UN talks on climate change this month, said she wanted access to technology that would cut the time it took to water her crops and till her garden. She would also be glad of help in improving storage facilities and seed varieties.

"As a local farmer, I know what I need and I know what works. I grew up in the area and I know how the system is changing," Gondwe said.

This year, agricultural experts have renewed calls for policy makers to pay more attention to small-scale female farmers like Gondwe, who grow as much as 80 percent of the crops raised for food consumption in Africa.

After decades in the political wilderness, farming became a hot topic in 2008 when international food prices hit record high levels in June, sharply increasing hunger around the world. The proportion of development aid spent on agriculture has dropped to just 4 percent from a peak of 17 percent in 1982.

The former UN secretary general Kofi Annan has called for women to be at the heart of a "policy revolution" to improve small-scale farming in Africa.

Women have traditionally shouldered the burden of household food production both there and in Asia, while men tend to focus on growing cash crops or migrate to cities to find paid work.

Yet women own a tiny percentage of the world's land - some experts say as little as 2 percent - and receive only about 5 percent of farming information services and training.

"Today the African farmer is the only farmer who takes all the risks herself," Annan said at an October conference on fighting hunger. "No capital, no insurance, no price supports, and little help - if any - from governments. These women are tough and daring and resilient, but they need help."

A new publication by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization explaining how to tackle gender issues in farming development projects, highlights the potential returns of improving women's access to technology, land and finance.

In Ghana, for example, if women and men had equal land rights and security of tenure, women's use of fertilizer and profits per hectare would nearly double.

In Burkina Faso, Kenya and Tanzania, giving female entrepreneurs the same inputs and education as men would increase business revenue by as much as 20 percent. And in Ivory Coast, raising women's income by $10 brings improvements in children's health and nutrition that would require a $110 increase in men's income.

"The knowledge is there, the know-how is there, but the world - and here I'm talking rich and poor - doesn't apply it as much as it could," said Marcela Villarreal, director of the Food and Agriculture Organization's gender, equity and rural employment division.

Many African governments have introduced formal laws making women and men equal, but have trouble enforcing them where they clash with customary laws giving property ownership rights to men, she said.

Often if a woman's husband dies, she has little choice but to marry one of his relatives so she can keep farming her plot and feeding her children, Villarreal said. But if a widow is HIV positive, she might be chased off her land.

In Malawi, the Food and Agriculture Organization is working with legislators and village chiefs to let rural women know they are legally able to hold land titles. They are given wind-up radios so they can listen to farming shows in local languages and are taught how to write  wills.

"People continue to think that doing things for women is part of a welfare program, and doing things for men - big investments or credit - that is agriculture, that is GDP-related," Villarreal said. "Women continue not to be seen as part of the productive potential of a country."

One powerful woman trying to change that is Agnes Kalibata, Rwanda's minister of state for agriculture. She said government land reform and credit programs specifically focus on struggling female farmers, many of whom are bringing up children alone, their husbands having been killed in the 1994 genocide.

This has helped raise their incomes, leading to better nutrition, health and education for their children, Kalibata said. Women are also getting micro-credit loans, which they use to access markets and cooperatives or set up small businesses, such as producing specialty coffee for export.

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