October 22, 2013

Commentary - Investing in Rural Women: Closing the Gender Gap in African Agriculture

This commentary is part of a series organized by The Chicago Council's Global Agricultural Development Initiative and the World Food Prize to examine the relationship between biotechnology, sustainability, and climate volatility in the lead up to this year's Borlaug Dialogue.

By Mpule K. Kwelagobe
Mpule K. Kwelagobe is the CEO of the Institute for Endogenous Development, Executive Director of Africa Youth ARISE for youth in agriculture, rural innovation and social entrepreneurship, and Managing Director of the Pula Agriculture Fund.

Rural women constitute 50 percent of the agricultural labor force in Africa; they are responsible for 80 percent of the food production and 50 percent of the agricultural output. Rural women are also crucial in translating agricultural production into food and nutrition security for their families’ wellbeing. Given the extensive participation of women in all aspects of agricultural production, gender mainstreaming in the agriculture sector should be a key strategy for poverty reduction, sustainable agricultural intensification, and rural development.

Agriculture is an important engine for economic growth and poverty reduction in Sub-Saharan Africa. But the sector is underperforming in many African countries in part because women face constraints that reduce their productivity. African women have a higher labor burden than men, and are increasingly faced with shortages of water, fuel, and food in addition to their crushing workloads.

Women across Africa report working over 16 hours a day and, compared to men, work up to 30 hours more per week. This heavy labor burden limits their ability to be more actively engaged in economic activities. Climate change is also a multiplier of existing threats to food security, hunger and malnutrition. By the nature of their agricultural responsibilities, women are more likely to be impacted by land and water degradation, desertification, biodiversity losses, and natural disasters.

Land is the single most important asset for poor and non-poor households in Africa. Across the continent, rural women are less likely to own or operate land; they’re less likely to have access to rented land, and in those cases where they do have access, women typically operate smaller plots of land than men. Additionally, rural female farmers receive a mere 1 percent of total credit to agriculture and have less access to productive resources and services including livestock, extension services, financial services and new technologies required for efficient agricultural production.

And yet our dependence on women’s agriculture is high and steadily growing. The proportion of female-headed farms and households is growing in rural areas across Africa. This has contributed to the feminization of agriculture and the feminization of poverty. Rural women and the poor, who might be thought of as two different disadvantaged groups, are actually often one and the same.

Poverty is a root cause of hunger in Africa leading to malnutrition. In the hands of women, food is more likely to reach children’s mouths. A concerted focus on women as farmers, food consumers, and family food managers would therefore enhance food and nutrition security at the household, community and national levels. Eliminating the gaps between men’s and women’s access to agricultural resources and inputs would raise yields on women’s farms up to 30 percent and increase agricultural productivity in developing countries by nearly 4 percent. Such increased production could reduce the number of undernourished people in the world by almost 17 percent.

Addressing the constraints faced by women yields a double harvest: it improves their lives and increases their capacity to work more efficiently. Improving women’s access to land thus has a direct impact on farm productivity. Developing gender-sensitive agricultural policies, programs, research and extension services; mobilizing resources for economic development of land owned by women; and ensuring social services are tailored to the specific needs of rural women are all critical to enhancing the productivity of female farmers.

Women reinvest almost 90 percent of their income in their children and household. Since women are the keys to improving household food security and nutritional wellbeing, increasing women’s access to financial resources ultimately leads to increased investments in human capital. Indeed, research confirms that putting greater income into the hands of women yields beneficial results for entire communities, particularly in the areas of health, education and child nutrition.

African women are the backbone of agricultural and rural development. Closing the gender gap in African agriculture is therefore critical to poverty reduction. Addressing the specific needs of women in agriculture would put more resources into their hands and strengthen their voices within households, a proven strategy for enhancing food and nutrition security, access to education, and children’s health. These are the multiplier effects of investing in women.


The Global Food and Agriculture Program aims to inform the development of US policy on global agricultural development and food security by raising awareness and providing resources, information, and policy analysis to the US Administration, Congress, and interested experts and organizations.

The Global Food and Agriculture Program is housed within the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. The Council on Global Affairs convenes leading global voices and conducts independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

Support for the Global Food and Agriculture Program is generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


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