March 9, 2012 | By Roger Thurow

The Rising Power of Women Farmers

The most common tool in African agriculture is also the most impractical.  Or at least it appears to be.  It is the hoe, which is used for plowing, planting, weeding and harvesting.  It is a simple tool that produces the majority of the continent’s food, and yet it has remained unchanged over the centuries, defying any technological advance.

Consider that the golf club, the tool of the leisure class, has been the object of much attention and improvement in the past couple of decades.  The club face has been the object of high-tech research to refine the angle and shape, the shaft has been reinforced with all sorts of space-age materials.  And club architects have even lengthened the putter so the golfer, if so inclined, no longer needs to bend over the ball.

Not so the hoe.  No new metal compounds to toughen the blade or reinforce the handle have been developed.  Most curious is that on many African farms the handle remains short, just two or three feet in length.  This requires the farmer to bend deeply to work the soil.  It is back-breaking labor.

But what appears to be terribly awkward and impractical can also be seen as the most efficient and practical.  For it is women who do most of the farming, and often they do it with a swaddled baby on their backs.  Women farmers have told me how the bending position allows the baby to lie horizontally, blissfully sleeping while they work.  Also, the women say, they have to bend deeply in any case to properly nestle the seeds in the soil and pull the weeds and harvest the vegetables.  And, sadly, smallholder women farmers have been ignored by the private sector and largely deemed too poor and too remote to be worthy of technological innovation.

Thus the handle has remained short.  Except when wielded by men.  I have watched men farmers fashion longer handles, five or six feet in length, so they don’t have to bend so deeply in the fields.

Why, I’ve often been asked, is the farming in Africa mainly done by women?  A prime reason is that farming is mostly subsistence agriculture, and so it is seen as a menial task, like household chores.  Fetch the water, gather the firewood, tidy the compound, tend the crops – that is, in the main, the hard work of rural women.

But as more attention, and money, shifts to agricultural development, the role of women farmers becomes even more important and prized.  And the women themselves become more empowered, especially as their farming evolves from mere subsistence to sustainable and profitable, from farming to live to farming to make a living.

In the past year, while following the lives of smallholder African farmers in western Kenya, I witnessed this remarkable transformation and chronicle it in the book The Last Hunger Season, which will be published in May.  As subsistence crops become cash crops, providing money as well as food, the role of women in the households strengthens.  I sat in numerous conversations between husband and wife, where the woman’s view on crop selection was paramount.  The women were shaping the farming strategy, emphasizing crop diversity for better household nutrition and for more varied income.  And the women were full participants in discussions over how the farming income was spent; in all cases, they insisted that the money be used to improve nutrition for the children, pay for education and improve living conditions in the house.

These women would be grateful that their efforts – as Africa’s farmers – were at the center of so much discussion on International Women’s Day, which was celebrated this week.  My inbox filled with interesting observations:

There was an infographic from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and Farming First that explores the role of rural women in agriculture.  It is called “The Female Face of Farming” and can be found here.

From the NGO Landesa there was a video on the importance of land rights for women farmers that can be found here.

And from the Chicago Council’s Global Agricultural Development Initiative there was a new Issue Brief entitled “Ensuring the Success of Feed the Future:  Analysis and Recommendations on Gender Integration”.  It was authored by Ritu Sharma, cofounder and president of Women Thrive Worldwide, and can be found elsewhere on this site.

Hopefully, this bumper crop of attention will yield bumper crops of food – and ever more empowerment of the farmers.

Archive


| By Roger Thurow

My Moment of Great Disruption

In a 2013 TEDxChange talk, Roger Thurow talks about the smallholder farmers of Africa and the potential for good news in agricultural development.


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Hay Festival 2013: a look at the effects of famine

In the first year classroom of Shemena Godo Primary School, in Boricha, Ethiopia, three dozen children study the alphabet. On a black chalkboard, teacher Chome Muse highlights the letter B and writes the combination with each vowel. Ba, be, bi, bo, bu.

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A Mother's Day parable from Uganda

A mother knows. “This child is brilliant,” Harriet Okaka says about her one-year-old son, Abraham.  She isn’t bragging, just observing.  “I can tell, just by looking at him,” she says, “the way he plays, the way he is.”

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1,000 Days Project

Roger Thurow’s next book will tell the story of the vital importance of proper nutrition and health care in the 1,000 days window from the beginning of a woman’s pregnancy to her child’s second birthday.

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Imagine this: food aid reform

As word spread earlier this week of the food aid reform section of President Obama’s 2014 budget, I wondered how Jerman Amente would greet the news.


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Give peas a chance

As the ballots were being counted in the recent Kenya election, I saw photos of people displaying the encouraging message: Give Peace a Chance.  So far, that sentiment seems to be holding.


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Forward ever

The young man from the farm was looking smart in an olive green suit, salmon tie and cufflinks.  His black shoes were a bit scuffed, but his English was polished.  “We are moving forward,” he said.  “Forward ever, backward never.”

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Learning to Fish

In the vast assembly room at the Greater Chicago Food Depository, overlooking one of the nation’s premier food banking facilities, Drexton Granberry joyfully came to the end of his speech.  


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A Thanksgiving Tale: The Hungercloth

I often write and speak about the awful oxymoron, "Hungry Farmers." How can the smallholder farmers of Africa suffer through an annual hunger season when every morning they rise with one task: grow food for their families?


Multimedia

Videos


 


Digital Preview of The First 1,000 Days

In his new book, The First 1,000 Days, Council senior fellow Roger Thurow illuminates the 1,000 Days initiative to end early childhood malnutrition through the compelling stories of new mothers in Uganda, India, Guatemala, and Chicago. Get a first-look at photos and stories from the book in this new web interactive.

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» Order your copy of the book.

Books

The First 1,000 Days

Roger Thurow’s book will tell the story of the vital importance of proper nutrition and health care in the 1,000 days window from the beginning of a woman’s pregnancy to her child’s second birthday.

The 1,000 days period is the crucial period of development, when malnutrition can have severe life-long impacts on the individual, the family and society as a whole. Nutritional deficiencies that occur during this time are often overlooked, resulting in a hidden hunger. It is a problem of great human and economic dimensions, impacting rich and poor countries alike.

Learn more »

The Last Hunger Season

In The Last Hunger Season, the intimate dramas of the farmers' lives unfold amidst growing awareness that to feed the world's growing population, food production must double by 2050. How will the farmers, Africa, and a hungrier world deal with issues of water usage, land ownership, foreign investment, corruption, GMO's, the changing role of women, and the politics of foreign aid?

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EnoughEnough

Roger Thurow and Scott Kilman, award-winning writers on Africa, development, and agriculture, see famine as the result of bad policies spanning the political spectrum. In this compelling investigative narrative, they explain through vivid human stories how the agricultural revolutions that transformed Asia and Latin America stopped short in Africa, and how our sometimes well-intentioned strategies—alternating with ignorance and neglect—have conspired to keep the world’s poorest people hungry and unable to feed themselves.

Learn more »