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Women in African agriculture: Farmers, Mothers, Innovators and Educators

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The droughts in the US and Russia and their impact on harvests have dominated the news in the last few weeks. And with the latest USDA announcement that the US maize crop would be the smallest in six years and the soybean crop the smallest in nine years, there is media speculation about the future impact on global food prices. The food price spikes of 2007/08 and 2010 have shown us that national and regional risks can have global implications.

But for smallholder farmers in Africa - at least half of whom are women - droughts are but one of the many hurdles that they may need to overcome in the course of each agricultural cycle.

In a new briefing paper by Dr Lindiwe Majele Sibanda launched in a UK parliament meeting hosted by Heidi Alexander MP on 17th September, 'Women in African agriculture: farmers, mothers, innovators and educators', the international Montpellier Panel call for urgent and transformative action to address the needs and perspectives of women in smallholder agricultural policy in sub-Saharan Africa. The paper shows that women play crucial roles that often span the entire value chain: as farmers and businesswomen in smallholder agricultural production, as mothers managing household nutrition, and as innovators and educators.

Yet women in African agriculture are often burdened with huge risks to manage. Experience shows that a large number of the poorest, most disadvantaged and marginalised people in sub-Saharan Africa are women and some of the poorest households are headed by women.

National agricultural policies, however, often assume farmers are mostly men. According to the FAO, women in some African countries spend up to 60 percent of their time on agricultural activities. Women farmers contribute up to 50 percent of labour on farms in sub-Saharan Africa and more than 60 percent of employed women in sub-Saharan Africa work in agriculture.

Developing policies that focus on the needs of African women is not just a political numbers game, it is an economic imperative. As the FAO states, there is a significant global gender gap in agriculture, which translates into a costly lost opportunity to improve the quality and quantity of the world's food supply. If women had the same access to, and control over productive resources as men, they could increase yields on their farms by 20 to 30 percent. This could raise total agricultural output in developing countries by 2.5 to 4 percent, which could in turn reduce the number of hungry people in the world by 12 to 17 percent (100-150 million).

As the Montpellier Panel underlines, reaching and including women in agricultural policy and innovative programmes in Africa will require a substantially different approach by African national governments and the European governments that wish to work with them.

On a practical level the Panel recommends that future support be channelled to the following priority areas:

• Identifying partners that can link women farmers to markets and help women's groups participate fully in agricultural value chains;

• Improving the availability of gender disaggregated data for policymakers and citizens;

• Assessing and designing agricultural development programming to ensure programmes are gender aware and gender transformative;

• Training and empowering a critical mass of women to participate in and lead agricultural research and policy development;

• Fostering more experimentation and systematic evaluation of mechanisms to improve women's access to agricultural markets, credits and inputs.

The paper includes practical examples of how to put these recommendations into practice.

Programmes such as 'Women Accessing Re-aligned Markets (WARM)', financed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and pilot tested by the Food Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network (FANRPAN), with local partners in Malawi and Mozambique, which focused on the challenge of including women in agricultural policy-making processes in sub-Saharan Africa. The WARM programme used Theatre for Policy Advocacy (TPA) to engage stakeholders, encourage community participation, research the needs of female farmers, and package messages for policy makers and managers of development programmes.

While the US media reports that US farmers will not lose out from this summer's drought owing to higher crop prices and comprehensive crop insurance schemes, Africa's smallholder farmers have very little to fall back on in times of crisis. But there is little doubt that food crises in Africa also have global implications. Strengthening the voice and role of African women farmers has the potential to change the social and political landscape of rural Africa: it's an investment the continent, and the world, cannot afford to forget.