By Hon. Prof. Ruth K. Oniang’O Ph.D.
Founder and Editor-in-Chief, African Journal of Food, Agriculture, Nutrition and Development
For more than three decades, I have advocated for the African woman smallholder farmer.
The farmers of the future may not be small, and are not necessarily only women. That is why starting early to mentor and empower young people with knowledge is important: they will be better prepared to take on food production and the whole food value chain in a different way, with the idea of making it a business, a money making venture.
I trained in food and nutritional sciences overseas at Washington State University (Pullman) in the U.S.A. and at the University of Nairobi, Kenya. Whenever I was asked what I would do upon getting back to Kenya, I would respond “I want to work globally for the United Nations to try and rid the world of child hunger and malnutrition.” As I grew up, I saw children in my village with protruding tummies. This was not a good sight at all. Moreover, the mothers of such children would be shunned by the community. We did not have such a child in my household. I went back to Kenya with a Master’s degree in Food and Nutrition. Then for my Ph.D. at the University of Nairobi, I decided to work on weaning foods and associated challenges. My research comprised of both laboratory work and field research. After what I saw in the field, kwashiorkor and marasmic children, I decided not to go back to the laboratory. Most of our problems that resulted in malnutrition began in the field. As I spent more time in the field, I could see the burdens facing women when it came to child rearing and taking care of their homes, especially in the absence of their husbands, who might be working away from their homes and farms.
As I have traversed rural areas trying to understand the dynamics of livelihoods, it is not uncommon to find women and children who have not seen the man of the house for years. Such men would only appear in the case of the death of a close relative. But then as the scourge of HIV/AIDS became a reality, the man would suddenly appear and start to act as if all was well. There have been many cases where the man appears because he is ill and has come back to be nursed by the wife he had neglected for many years or to just die in the place of his birth. Clearly HIV/AIDS has added many burdens on women as they have to also serve as caregivers for sick members of the family, a situation which in some cases goes on for years.
So what do we have here? A rural woman has to produce food to feed the family, she has to ensure security and a fairly decent livelihood for her children and even extended family, she has to maintain self-esteem if she wants to survive, and many times she has to take care of both her own parents and those of her husband. When does she ever worry about her own health? In my culture, the family does not sit to eat together, even now. In many homes, the woman serves other people and eats last. These traditional practices die hard. We need not do much; the best way to affect positive change is to provide education. Education is the best game-changer. Educated women want and strive for better things for their families. Educated women in the rural areas try to emulate their urban counterparts, and often do not lose as many children to disease. They also try to make sure their children are well-fed, even if they have to use hired labor. Educated women have better chances of surviving childbirth, and educated women will be more inclined to use birth control methods. Educated women will better absorb extension messages within an agricultural setting.
It does not matter how educated we become, as women we always worry about food for our families. A Kenyan woman will always stop at nothing to make sure she gathers food for family, and many women spend hours on this task. She will clear her shamba (field), look for seeds to plant even if it means borrowing them, still weed, expecting the best even when her crop is bad, and then harvest and store her crops, only to sometimes find them spoilt. Regrettably, she will still feed her children the bad food because that may be all that she has.
As we try to rid the world of hunger, I still believe not enough is invested in women. Large sums of money go into agriculture. Huge sums have come to Africa, and yet we continue to have sad episodes of food shortages and malnutrition affecting both children and adults. Children and women continue to be the most vulnerable. As Gender in Agriculture begins to be taken seriously, and as nutrition too begins to be recognized as a key component of the equation by world leaders, including the G8, I am hopeful that we are headed in the right direction. Women farmers need extensive support more than ever before. Women need better information on how to increase the chances of child survival. Women need information on how to feed their families better, and they need credit to be able to progress in their small businesses. Women need support and services that can increase their chances of surviving childbirth; it is tragic for a mother to either lose a baby in childbirth or for she herself to die and leave her newborn, especially as the result of avoidable mistakes.
Finally, we need to invest in capacity-building at all levels. Human resource capacity in the agricultural sciences is quickly aging and being lost. This happens to be a worldwide phenomenon.
Governments and donors need to act urgently on these issues. Gender is a key consideration when it comes to agriculture and malnutrition. The adoption of proven technologies cannot be sustained in the absence of adequate investment in agricultural research and innovation. The private sector with its strength in innovation and marketing needs to be taken advantage of. And finally, the smallholder famer needs to be placed at the center of all this.