April 27, 2016

Guest Commentary – The Cost of Leaving Women Farmers Behind

By Niklas Buehren, Economist, and Rachel Coleman, Analyst, World Bank 

Small-scale farmers are the heart of Africa’s agricultural production. Their tireless labor has the potential to generate growth, reduce poverty, and increase food security for millions. Unfortunately, so far this sector has not realized its true potential. One contributing factor to this reality is the large gender gap in agricultural productivity that exists across sub-Saharan Africa.

My team at the World Bank, the Africa Gender Innovation Lab, has been working to generate evidence on how to close the gender gap in agricultural productivity through conducting rigorous impact evaluations. We have produced a body of evidence including the Levelling the Field report and the Cost of the Gender Gap in Agricultural Productivity in Malawi, Tanzania, and Uganda report that identified constraints women farmers face, determined the size and cost of the gap in agricultural productivity as well as offered promising policy options and emerging new ideas to test. 

The Costing the Gender Gap in Agricultural Productivity report strives to illustrate why this work matters by showing that closing the gender gap could result in significant gross gains to GDP for economies. The report concludes that GDP gains of $100 million in Malawi, $105 million in Tanzania, and $67 million in Uganda could be realized if this gap was closed.

Photo Credit: Stephan Gladieu/World Bank On top of the gross GDP gains, other positive development outcomes such as reduced poverty and greater food security could be achieved if this disparity in agriculture productivity between men and women farmers is addressed. Closing the gender gap in agricultural productivity could reduce poverty and improve nutrition directly, because many poor people work in agriculture and indirectly because higher agricultural output may increase income for people employed outside of the agriculture sector through spillover effects. Additionally, higher agricultural output can also lead to lower food prices, which could in turn help improve nutrition by enabling poor people to buy more and better food. As a result, the report suggests that 238,000 people in Malawi, 80,000 people in Tanzania, and 119,000 people in Uganda could be lifted out of poverty.

The task we are faced with today is designing innovative, efficient, and above all, effective approaches to closing the gap. The good news is the research that has already been conducted provides us with a menu of promising solutions and ideas to test, such as providing women farmers with small nudges in the form of well-timed discounts to encourage the purchase of fertilizer, or bringing agricultural training to women’s doorsteps through farmer field schools and mobile phone applications.

While achieving these gains would in itself require additional investments from governments, their value is sufficiently large enough to justify action. At a conference launching the results of the Costing the Gender Gap report in Malawi last month, the Minister of Agriculture, Irrigation, and Water Development, the Honorable Dr. Allan Chiyembekeza detailed the scope of this issue in his comments, stating, “failure to close the gender gap in agricultural productivity may have negative implications not only on women’s economic empowerment, but also on the government’s agenda to reduce poverty and achieve national economic growth and development.” We must design, pilot, and evaluate new programs as well as continue to implement tested policies that close the gender gap in agricultural productivity and ensure greater food security and economic growth across sub-Saharan Africa. 


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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