Promoting Choice: Supporting the World’s Women Farmers

Ndidzulafi Ndou shows off her prize goats at an agricultural show in Gwanda, Zimbabwe
Ndidzulafi Ndou shows off her prize goats at an agricultural show in Gwanda, Zimbabwe

On one side of the world Amanda Todd, a fifteen-year old girl commits suicide. Reasons: Cyber-bullying and schoolyard taunts and depression. On the other side of the world, Malala Yousafzai, a fourteen-year old girl is shot in the head. Reasons: allegedly promoting secularism and wanting to go to school.

There are times when I think we have made so much progress in terms of gender equality and creating a safe, nurturing, welcoming world for women. And at other times it seems that we have so far to go.

The Second Global Conference on Agricultural Research for Development (GCARD2) will be held in Punta del Este, Uruguay, from 29 October to 1 November 2012. GCARD1, held in 2010, set the stage by producing a Road Map describing how increased investment in agriculture across various scales can make a contribution towards improving the lives and livelihoods of smallholder farmers. Two years later at GCARD2, participants will take stock of the first steps taken so far.

And once again at this global forum, the gender question will emerge: What can we do to help rural women?

According to a study by the FAO, women farmers are 20-30% less productive on their farms than men. If women farmers can be supported to reduce this gap in performance, then 100-150 million more people would not live in hunger. This is no small number!

The reasons for this difference in productivity are not because women are inherently less efficient at farming. It is mostly as a result of two things: access to resources and time constraints. Women farmers often have less access to land, credit, financing, new technologies, and even knowledge. Existing social divides between the two sexes such as lack of education for the girl child become compounded when women are now required to lead and make decisions on behalf of their family’s welfare.

And women farmers rarely perform just one role. They multi-task, spending time in their fields and also managing their homes, feeding their children, caring for the sick and ailing. Even though they may work more hours in a day than their male counterparts they end up being less productive in the fields.

So how can we help rural women? The more I think about this question, the more I think the answer lies in choices –  not necessarily in the specific farming choices women make, (planting peanuts instead of maize for example) but rather in agricultural research being able to promote choice, to support the ability of women to choose for themselves, to provide women with a wider range of options from which to choose.

Perhaps the difference between focusing on the actual choice made and focusing on promoting the ability to choose from a range of options is a subtle one. And yet I think it is one that can make a big difference in the lives of rural women. Take, for instance, Ndidzulafi Ndou, a farmer in Gwanda, Zimbabwe. Ndou, like many women in Zimbabwe, maintains a goat herd. By selling goats she earns the cash she needs to buy household necessities like soap and sugar and to pay for school fees for her children.

Recently built infrastructure specifically for small stock along with the monthly auctions have made goat production a viable business in Gwanda
Recently built infrastructure specifically for small stock along with the monthly auctions have made goat production a viable business in Gwanda, Zimbabwe

In the years when Zimbabwe’s economy collapsed and inflation was rampant, Ndou’s choices were limited. She was not able to sell her goats for fair prices and often ended up bartering them for what she needed. She stopped selling her livestock except under cases of extreme necessity, what researchers call “distress sales.” Traditional project approaches might have tried to support farmers like Ndou by providing them with their household needs (handouts) or by providing them with more animals to build up their declining herds. These approaches do not necessarily increase a woman farmer’s choices.

In 2008 a new approach tested by ICRISAT attempted to promote choice by starting further afield than a farmer’s home. The project looked at the markets where women farmers sell their goats. Using an innovation platform approach, where various stakeholders along a value chain meet to discuss their challenges and test possible solutions, the project helped to support the construction of sale facilities and also establish monthly auctions for small stock.

Now women like Ndou can choose to sell their animals at the auctions where they are sure of being fairly compensated for their animals or they can find their own buyers outside of this particular marketing channel, knowing full well what their animals are worth. They can estimate their family’s financial needs ahead of time and plan their goat marketing strategies to meet those needs. This type of work expands women’s choices, giving them more freedom and helping to create the right environment for them to make their own decisions.

It’s too late for Amanda Todd to realize that she had choices beyond suicide. Malala Yousufzai already knows that education is one key to increasing the choices available to her. Hopefully researchers at GCARD2 will be able to identify other ways to increase the choices available to the world’s growing numbers of women farmers.

Watch an interview with Ndidzulafi Ndou below:

More information on ICRISAT’s work with women farmers in Eastern and Southern Africa.

Blogpost by Swathi Sridharan, uploaded by Robert Kibaya, two GCARD Social Reporters.

Picture courtesy Swathi Sridharan/ICRISAT

5 thoughts on “Promoting Choice: Supporting the World’s Women Farmers

  1. A very touching article on the actual situation of women in Agriculture. Women farmers do have the potential and work hard for it. Every country needs to allocate a special Agricultural extension department who support the initiatives taken by women. These advisory department could work in collaboration with NGO’s, other stake holders and community service people.
    This has been an enriching reading! Keep up with the great job!

    1. Opportunities have arrived for women in agriculture. Agricultural innovation systems are the light at the end of the tunnel since it promotes the inclusion of different and diverse stakeholders to integrate themselves to achieve economic, technological and the most important institutional and organizational innovations. The possibility sustains women in developing societies to be visible and integrate themselves with different stakeholders in formal organizations where norms and rules are given in similar conditions. Capacities will be strengthened and relations will improve to dramatically change roles and responsibilities that have been affecting female farmers.

  2. Very well written and I’m so glad that you are involved in uplifting the working conditions of women. Keep up the good work.

  3. Dear Ms. Swathi: excellent info and very touching. great learning for grassroot people like us. will love to exchange case studies on smallholding women farmers’ win over poverty through world bank IDM 2007 awarded innovative irrigation technology in disaster affected area.
    Biplab K Paul
    Ashoka Global Change Maker Fellow
    AMbassador for Peace

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