Empowering female farmers in developing countries is crucial to solving the world’s food problems as an era of food price spikes looms, the chair of a panel which advises governments and donors on agricultural development in Sub-Saharan Africa told Reuters.
“If we’re 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 of that is to ensure that women fulfill their potential as farmers,” Gordon Conway, Chair of the Montpellier Panel, said as the group launched a report on African agriculture.
“Women are constrained by the fact that they don’t have enough 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 percent, which would have a really big impact,” he said.
If women upped their production by this amount, the agricultural output of developing countries would rise by between 2.5 and 4 percent, potentially slashing the number of undernourished people by 12 to 17 percent, according to the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
It is therefore crucial that women's needs and rights are at the heart of all rural development programs instead of merely being added on as an afterthought, Conway said.
“This isn’t an extra - this is fundamental to achieving growth with resilience,” he said.
Women account for around 43 percent of agricultural laborers in developing countries, according to the FAO.
But poor access to resources like land, water, fertilizers, seeds and technical knowledge is limiting their productivity, 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 is 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 advisors 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 is evidence of a shift away from male dominance of agriculture, Conway said.
African agro dealers, who run shops selling goods like seed and fertilizer, are being trained by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to advise customers, and are therefore helping to tackle the problem of a lack of access to male extension agents which female farmers face.
“Instead of relying on (extension agents) who are usually male, you start to rely on these little shopkeepers to provide advice and many of those are women and so the women feel more at home going in there to see what can be done,” Conway said.
This is very important in helping to ensure sustainable food security in Africa in an age of food price volatility, especially as global warming, increased meat and wheat consumption in emerging countries, and the use of food crops for biofuels put pressure on the world's food supply, he said.