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Increased agricultural productivity in Sub-Saharan Africa through gender empowerment: An impossible dream?

Written by Christina Cheong (1)

This article is republished with permission from Consultancy Africa Intelligence (CAI). For more information, see Consultancy Africa Intelligence.

Although rapidly urbanising, 63% of the population of Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) still live in rural areas, with 80-90% of the population engaged in agriculture.(2) While the effectiveness of agriculture, as an economic sector, in lifting the region out of chronic poverty is still a debated issue, the sheer number of people involved in farming implies significant growth linkages and hence the potential for widespread impacts from improving the sector. Multimarket modelling carried out on various SSA countries illustrates further that agriculture-led growth results in greater poverty reduction than industry-led growth.(3) These observations remain consistent even for resource-rich countries like Zambia, where agriculture accounts only for a small part of the gross domestic product (GDP).(4) Research into rural development in Asia has also shown that communities consisting of small farms benefited most from agricultural growth.(5) Since agriculture in SSA is predominantly carried out by smallholding farmers, this finding further supports the hypothesis that agriculture has the potential to lift a considerable number of households, and more broadly the region, out of extreme poverty.

Improvements in agricultural productivity in SSA in the past two decades have been mainly due to a corresponding growth in land being cultivated, rather than intensified use of fertilisers or technology.(6) However, agricultural growth underpinned by continuous expansion of cultivated land is unsustainable for various reasons including limited arable land and land use competition. As such, a more sustainable approach is to “invest in developing a more sustainable, productivity-driven base for competitive commercial agriculture over the long-run.”(7) Some of the measures to improve productivity include supporting farmers in accessing high quality seeds, fertilisers, equipment, information and financial services. There are currently many programmes to support farmers in these aspects, but for these to be truly effective, it is essential to disaggregate the farming population and consider the circumstances of women farmers as conditions and interventions affect men and women farmers differently. Premised on this key differentiation, this CAI paper considers the empowering of women farmers in SSA as a key thrust to raising agricultural productivity resulting in poverty reduction.

Gender matters

Over the past 50 years, agricultural productivity in SSA has lagged behind that of Latin America and Asia,(8) as seen in Figure 1. Gender is an important aspect that is often overlooked in agricultural interventions. For staple crop cultivation in Africa, female farmers make up almost 80% of the workforce.(9) Growth in staple crop output results in greater economic benefits than increasing export-crop production to the same extent.(10) In SSA, women account for about 50% of the agricultural labour on average. The proportion of women farmers ranges from 36% (Côte d’Ivoire and Niger) to over 60% (Lesotho, Mozambique and Sierra Leone).(11) This proportion is increasing because of the exit of male farmers due to HIV&AIDS, urban migration or conflict, and represents the highest proportion of female participation in agriculture worldwide.(12) Yet, women farmers continue to produce less than their male counterparts. The reasons for the disparity are complex and varied, but this gap does not diminish with increased wealth.(13) As gender roles and responsibilities are socially defined notions, they differ between countries and regions, between communities in the same locality, and even between households in the same community. In spite of the complexity, policy-makers and development agencies need to account for the specific needs of women in agriculture for interventions to effectively bring about poverty reduction and community development.

Net agricultural production Figure 1: Net agricultural production from 1961 – 2006 (14)

The Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) reports that the gender gap in agriculture results from female farmers having less access to productive resources such as land, livestock, technology, extension services and credit, than men.(15) Land is an essential asset in agriculture, but few women in Sub-Saharan Africa have control or ownership over it, from lower than 5% in Mali to over 30% in Botswana and Malawi.(16) Furthermore, these plots often tend to be of lower quality and smaller sizes than those owned by men. This pattern of inequality is repeated in many other important agricultural assets. Women in Africa are also intensely constrained by their household duties such as cleaning, collecting firewood and water, as well as caring for the young and aged – for example, in Uganda women are prevented from greater participation in the lucrative export-crop sector because of their domestic commitments.(17) A consequence of the poor infrastructure and limited social support services in many African countries is that women spend more time and energy in fulfilling household chores. Local norms, such as restrictions against women ploughing in Ethiopia, increase dependency on male labour for a significant part of the land preparation, a liability the women can ill afford.(18) Furthermore, cultural norms often prevent women from benefiting from seemingly gender-neutral policies. All these factors impact on the availability of labour for fieldwork. Having fewer assets and limited access to labour means female farmers are less able to respond to market price changes or to adopt new technologies, due to their inability to afford start-up costs.

Other factors, like lower levels of human capital and access to financial services, exacerbate the effects of the gender gap in agriculture. Education is a critical enabler allowing the engagement of new technologies and extension services. Yet, SSA women living in rural areas often have lower levels of education than the men, as is common in developing countries. For instance, an FAO survey shows that while most male household heads in Ghana, Madagascar, Malawi and Nigeria went through almost 5 years of education, their female counterparts had, on average, 2.5 years of schooling.(19) The report further highlights that the education gender gap is widest in southern Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. Additionally, credit and other financial services often favour males, and this limited access to credit has been found to directly inhibit Kenyan women from expanding their agricultural activities.(20) These inequalities directly impact the overall productivity of the countries, as well as the wellbeing of rural communities. The economically-quantifiable effects of bridging the gender gap in agriculture are clear – improved education and access to credit creates conditions for increased household incomes, indirectly contributing to better health and nutrition, and reduced hunger and poverty. Reducing this inequality also serves to address broader development objectives including lower child mortality, higher level of education for male and female children, sustained economic growth and rural development as women tend to invest surplus resources into the education and nutrition for their children.(21)


When considering women’s empowerment, it is imperative to distinguish between gender equality and gender equity. Programmes focusing on gender equality aim to provide opportunities for women to access services and rights in the public sphere, to the same extent as men. But these disregard the different needs and interests of women, and indeed, the fact that they could live significantly different realities from men.(22) Working towards gender equity, on the other hand, considers the experiences and goals of women to achieve equivalence in life outcomes for both sexes, achieved through women’s empowerment. In practical terms, this involves the free expression by women of their needs and interests to guide any planned intervention. Longwe, in her framework, identifies five levels of “equality” against which to evaluate development programmes in order to determine the degree of women’s empowerment.(23) Moser, however, takes a different – and more appropriate for agricultural interventions – perspective to women’s empowerment. This framework looks at the strategic needs and interests of men and women that have the potential to change existing power imbalances in gender relations.(24) The various components of the framework can be applied flexibly in various contexts to enhance planning and evaluation of women’s empowerment programmes. Of these, Tools 2 and 6 will be used in the case study for improving agricultural productivity in SSA discussed later in this paper. Tool 2 of the framework is a list of the basic and strategic needs of women in the community.(25) Women in the community compile the list, though facilitators play a role in assisting them to explore possible changes to the current norms. Tool 6 incorporates women’s voices into the planning process so that intervention programmes are effective in meeting strategic needs and are responsive to the specific constraints of the community.(26)

The empowerment of women is both complex and imperative. There have been efforts to quantify the degree of empowerment through agricultural indices.(27) However, these numbers fail to describe the nuances of local conditions, nor do they inform policy-makers in a meaningful way. For example, the introduction of lucrative export contracts for cultivating French beans to the rural community in Meru, Kenya, resulted in violent gender-based domestic conflicts when men ventured into horticulture, historically a women’s domain.(28) The Meru women were also hindered by discriminatory traditions from capitalising on these contracts. Their responses ranged from converting to Christianity to resorting to witchcraft and poisoning their husbands. This case demonstrates the need for greater sensitivity to local cultures and appropriate government interventions to promote gender equity. Tool No. 3 from Moser’s framework can provide local leaders with a better appreciation of power dynamics in the domestic sphere and to intervene accordingly in this situation to prevent deterioration of social relations while in pursuit of economic growth.

How to grow more, better

Agricultural productivity is conventionally computed as a complex function of three vectors: inputs; farmer attributes; and household or community-level variables.(29) The ‘input’ vector considers resources such as land, labour, finances, fertilisers and information, among others, while farmer attributes include his/her sex, age and educational level, for instance. Using the same function to compute and compare productivities between male and female farmers assumes the same production function can be applied to both genders. This is problematic as it disregards any difference in the quality of their inputs, or any disparity in ease of obtaining these inputs, such as water, credit or labour, a case that is seen most keenly when considering the gender gap. Other complexities, such as differences in crop choice and levels of domestic commitments between genders, are also not captured. Gender analyses of agricultural productivity therefore need to probe beyond the simplistic classification of the sex of household head, as intra-household allocation of resources and division of labour also impact farm productivity.(30)

The process of eliminating the gender gap in agriculture involves many key players, including the government, extension officials, civil and traditional leaders and researchers. Legislative structures and official attitudes need to be reviewed, to root out any biases against women written in the law, especially with regard to land ownership. Civil and traditional leaders are required to be sensitised towards gender-specific concerns and needs. Collection of sex-disaggregated data will assist researchers and policy-makers to design technologies, public services and agricultural programmes that support both male and female farmers more effectively. The establishment of women’s groups can further improve women’s access to information, services and control through information sharing, mutual support and collective decision-making.

In recent times, numerous agricultural programmes in Africa have reportedly been successful in improving productivity, addressing poverty, or conserving environmental health.(31) These successes occur primarily in three domains: commodity variant, activity based, and institutions.(32) ‘Commodity variant’ forms of improvements result from farmer’s increasing productivity by switching to improved crop variants. Agricultural centres worldwide have been introducing high yield and robust strains of staple crops resulting in increased food production. Many African countries have benefited from this research, albeit to a lesser degree than other farming regions.(33) ‘Activity based’ enhancements refer to increased yields from a change in farming method or regime, while ‘institution-led’ improvements are those directly resulting from government policies and programmes.

Expanding on successes

In the following section, a case study of the adoption of fertiliser tree systems (FTS)(34) is discussed, and possibilities for extension of this technological innovation to include a gender focus are explored. Farmers in Southern Africa have experimented with the use of certain trees for capturing atmospheric nitrogen, which is then returned to the soil as a measure for improving soil fertility. This form of improving soil nutrient content makes use of land and labour, in place of cash, for soil fertilisation. In the early phase of the project, farmer groups were established and the cropping programmes were designed collaboratively between researchers and farmers. In the SSA countries where the project was introduced, the improvement to soil health and crop yield for smallholders were conclusively positive.(35) To encourage greater level of sustainable soil fertility management (such as FTS) by smallholder farmers, institutional and technological solutions have been proposed.(36) Increasing women’s participation in such schemes, however, could be an additional strategic thrust for quick and sustained results.

Although the project description does not specifically mention whether women farmers were part of the collaborative phase, or if there were extension programmes that reached out especially to women, the participation numbers shed some light on this. On the finalisation of the project, training of farmers was conducted in four prongs – directly by researchers, by partner agencies, direct farmer-to-farmer and by national extension services. Gender disaggregated results show that in Zambia, women participation was slightly above men only in Prong 1. In the remaining approaches, numbers of women farmers who took part in the project lagged at 40-70% of men.(37) Factors such as smaller plot size and poorer access to information could be reasons for depressed participation among Zambian women.(38) In Malawi, on the other hand, total women participation in the FTS project was 7% higher than men.(39) While a larger proportion of farmers reported significant improvement in crop yield in Zambia, reported reduction in hunger was much higher in Malawi.(40) This suggests that, though many factors come into play, increased yields for women lead to improved food security for the household to a greater extent than when men improve their productivity.

Extension agencies and government extension services in Zambia need to address women specifically if they aim to increase women participation in the FTS project as a means of hunger reduction. Tools from Moser’s framework, namely Gender Needs Assessment (Tool 2) and women involvement in planning (Tool 6) contribute towards this end.(41) In enabling women in the Zambian farming communities to identify and list their basic and strategic needs, agricultural extension officers begin a chain of transformation and empowerment. Consulting with women on their preferences and constraints, and involving these considerations in the project design can make adopting the FTS more accessible to women farmers. Women may need to be approached as individuals, households or a collective (for instance, by group or village), depending on the intra-household and community dynamics. Household definitions could also be challenged, as informal unions and polygamy are practiced in parts of Africa. By tailoring innovation projects to the realities of the women farmers, extension officers and researchers greatly facilitate the use of these technologies by females, thus improving their livelihoods and narrowing the gender gap.(42) Although there are no survey results to support these proposals, current reported statistics from FTS projects in Malawi and Zambia strongly suggest increased community benefits through incorporating a women focus during project design and extension phases.


Concluding remarks

The potential for improving rural livelihoods through women’s empowerment is real and significant. Introducing a gender focus to agricultural interventions in SSA right from programme inception ensures appropriate levels of sensitisation among programme designers, managers and field officers. The mainstreaming of gender concerns remains a priority for governments, development agencies as well as local communities. The conscious collaboration at all levels towards this purpose has the potential to dramatically improve economic and community development in SSA. Gender mainstreaming requires a commitment to look beyond simplistic classifications and stereotypes, but to devote resources to peer into the specifics and complexities confronting women farmers in SSA. In setting priorities for agricultural programmes, managers need to consider equitability of genders and the impacts on enhancing food security – in individuals, households, communities and ultimately, the state.(43) Because of its immense potential to enhance agricultural performance in SSA, and thus improving the food security of millions of people, attention must be given to the elimination of the gender gap in agriculture.


(1) Christina Cheong is a Research Associate with CAI with an interest in food security and urban poverty issues. Contact Christina through Consultancy Africa Intelligence’s Enviro Africa unit (enviro.africa@consultancyafrica.com). Edited by Liezl Stretton.
(2) ‘Rural poverty report 2011’, International Fund for Agricultural Development, http://www.ifad.org.
(3) Diao, X., Hazell, P. and Thurlow, J., 2010. The role of agriculture in African development. World Development, 38(10), pp. 1375-1383.
(4) Mutumweno, M., ‘Zambia’s agriculture sector helps drive economic growth’, African Farming and Food Processing, 3 April 2013, http://africanfarming.net.
(5) Rosegrant, M. and Hazell, P., 2000. Transforming the rural Asian economy: The unfinished revolution. Oxford University Press: Oxford.
(6) Ibid.
(7) Morris, M., Binswanger-Mkhize, H. and Byerlee, D., ‘Awakening Africa’s sleeping giant: Prospects for commercial agriculture in the Guinea Savannah zone and beyond’, The World Bank, 2009,http://elibrary.worldbank.org.
(8) ‘Rural poverty report 2011’, International Fund for Agricultural Development, http://www.ifad.org.
(9) Mohapatra, S., ‘The pillars of Africa’s agriculture’, Appropriate Technology, June 2011,http://www.researchinformation.co.uk.
(10) Diao, X., Hazell, P. and Thurlow, J., 2010. The role of agriculture in African development.World Development, 38(10), pp. 1375-1383.
(11) ‘The state of agriculture 2010-2011’, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2011,http://www.fao.org.
(12) Ibid.
(13) Croppenstedt, A., Goldstein, M. and Rosas, N., 2013. Gender and agriculture: Inefficiencies, segregation, and low productivity traps. The World Bank Research Observer, 28(1), pp. 79–109.
(14) ‘Rural poverty report 2011’, International Fund for Agricultural Development, http://www.ifad.org.
(15) ‘The state of agriculture 2010-2011’, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2011,http://www.fao.org.
(16) Ibid.
(17) Udry, C., et al., 1995. Gender differentials in farm productivity: Implications for household efficiency and agricultural policy. Food Policy, 20(5), pp. 407–423.
(18) Holden, S., Shiferaw, B. and Pender, J., 2001. Market imperfections and land productivity in the Ethiopian Highlands. Journal of Agricultural Economics, 52(3), pp. 53–70.
(19) ‘The state of agriculture 2010-2011’, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2011,http://www.fao.org.
(20) Ouma, J., de Groote, H. and Owuor, G., ‘Determinants of improved maize seed and fertilizer use in Kenya: Policy implications’, paper presented at the 2006 Annual Meeting of the International Association of Agricultural Economists, Queensland, Australia, 12 – 18 August 2006, http://ageconsearch.umn.edu.
(21) Loutfi, M. F., 1980. Rural women: Unequal partners in development. International Labour Office: Geneva.
(22) ‘Gender and development: Concepts and definitions’, Department for International Development report no. 55, February 2000, http://www.bridge.ids.ac.uk.
(23) ‘A guide to gender – analysis frameworks’, Oxfam, 2005, http://policy-practice.oxfam.org.uk.
(24) Ibid.
(25) Ibid.
(26) Ibid.
(27) Alkire, S., et al., 2013. The women’s empowerment in agriculture index.World Development, 52, pp. 71–91.
(28) Dolan, C., 2001. The ‘good wife’: Struggles over resources in the Kenyan horticultural sector. The Journal of Development Studies, 37(3), pp. 39-70.
(29) Peterman, A., et al., 2011. Understanding the complexities surrounding gender differences in agricultural productivity in Nigeria and Uganda. The Journal of Development Studies, 47(10), pp. 1482-1509.
(30) Ibid.
(31) Gabre-Madhin, E. and Haggblade, S., 2004. Successes in African agriculture: Results of an expert survey. World Development, 32(5), pp. 745–766.
(32) Ibid.
(33) Fuglie, K. and Rada, N., ‘Research raises agricultural productivity in Sub-Saharan Africa’, Amber Waves, 6 May 2013, http://ers.usda.gov/amber-waves.
(34) Ajayi, O., et al., G., 2011. Agricultural success from Africa: The case of fertilizer tree systems in southern Africa (Malawi, Tanzania, Mozambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe). International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability, 9(1), pp. 129–136.
(35) Akinnifesi, F., et al., 2011. Fertiliser trees for sustainable food security in the maize-based production systems of East and Southern Africa. Sustainable Agriculture, 2, pp. 129-146.
(36) Ibid.
(37) Ajayi, O., et al., 2011. Agricultural success from Africa: The case of fertilizer tree systems in southern Africa (Malawi, Tanzania, Mozambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe). International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability, 9(1), pp. 129–136.
(38) Doss, C., 2001. Designing agricultural technology for African women farmers: Lessons from 25 years of experience. World Development, 29(12), pp. 2075-2092.
(39) Ajayi, O., etal., 2011. Agricultural success from Africa: The case of fertilizer tree systems in southern Africa (Malawi, Tanzania, Mozambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe). International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability, 9(1), pp. 129–136.
(40) Ibid.
(41) ‘A guide to gender- analysis frameworks’, Oxfam, 2005, http://policy-practice.oxfam.org.uk.
(42) Doss, C., 2001. Designing agricultural technology for African women farmers: Lessons from 25 years of experience. World Development, 29(12), pp. 2075-2092.
(43) Ibid.

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