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

Remembering the Post-9/11 Promises to Raise Foreign Aid

The 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks is bringing back a rush of memories and emotions.  Everyone it seems is recalling, with respect for the victims, where they were on that day when they heard or watched the horrific news.

| By Roger Thurow

Coping with Drought

With drought devastating farms from the Horn of Africa to the Panhandle of Texas, I journeyed to one of the frontlines of climate change to “chew the news,” as the Maasai say.

| By Roger Thurow

Harvest and Hunger – Part 2

At 6:30 this morning, as the sun was coming up, Sanet Biketi walked out of his small house made of mud and sticks.  Carrying a machete at his side, he headed straight to the edge of his maize field and said a prayer of thanksgiving for the arrival of harvest day.

| By Roger Thurow

Harvest and Hunger

Two scenes from the great African paradox of surplus and shortage – feast and famine – in the same country.

| By Roger Thurow

Empty Promises, Empty Stomachs

The promises made by the leaders of the rich world in L’Aquila, Italy, two years ago were supposed to stop what is now happening in the Horn of Africa. But those pledges haven’t been kept, and starvation is raging once again.

| By Roger Thurow

Rowing in the Same Direction

Vision.  Strategy.  Tactics.

These were the priorities that emerged at my table during a discussion about the role of U.S. universities, government agencies, NGOs, foundations and the African diplomatic community in advancing African development.  

| By Roger Thurow

Political Will

The Nigerian ambassador to the U.S., Adebowale Ibidapo Adefuye, tells an acerbic joke to illustrate the importance of good leadership.

| By Roger Thurow

Countering Drought

This growing season in south-central Kenya has been a good test for the new drought tolerant maize varieties being bred in Africa.  This is a semi-arid area, but this year they can drop the semi.  Farmers report only three short periods of rain since the February planting time.

| By Roger Thurow

Cool Beans

For some farmers in western Kenya, the hunger season I wrote about last week is coming to a mercifully early end.  A new variety of bean is ready for harvest.


| By Roger Thurow

Big Brains on Little Brains

Little brains were on the minds of some pretty big brains in the fight against hunger at the Chicago Council’s Symposium on Global Agriculture and Food Security this week.

| By Roger Thurow

The Importance of Innovation

Bill Gates came to the Chicago Council’s Symposium on Global Agriculture and Food Security with a confession.  “I’ve never been a farmer,” he said.  “Until recently, I rarely set foot on farm.”

| By Roger Thurow

Public Policy Matters

I enjoyed the great privilege of giving my first commencement speech on Sunday, to the graduating class of the Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs at the University of Wisconsin.  I had eagerly anticipated the ceremony, knowing that the passion to shape a more just world inspires young policy makers as mightily as it fuels journalists.

| By Roger Thurow

Something to Cut

With many words in this column, we have discussed what not to cut from the federal budget.  Namely, administration requests to fund agriculture development, especially in Africa, under the Feed the Future initiative and the Global Agriculture Food Security Program.

| By Roger Thurow

Yin and Yang of Foreign Aid

Here is the Yin and the Yang of development aid spending: In the U.S., it is on the chopping block, threatened by budget cutters sharpening their knives; in China it is on an expansion course, favored by a government seeking to accumulate influence and riches in the developing world, particularly Africa.

Multimedia

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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?

Learn more »

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 »