Investing in Women Farmers
In all the discussion of global agriculture, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that most of the world’s farmers operate on very small plots of land, producing food for themselves and their families, and occasionally selling small surpluses on local markets. In Africa, and estimated 80 percent of all famers cultivate fewer than two hectares of land. While the precise nature of these farms varies greatly across regions, these farmers—the majority of whom are women—produce 80 percent of the food consumed across Africa. Addressing the challenges faced by these farmers is obviously central to achieving food security and food sovereignty on the Continent.
A recent study by the Worldwatch Institute notes that despite their central role in food production around the world, women farmers continue to be neglected by agricultural support services and investment. Across the developing world, women produce between sixty and eighty percent of the food (and even more of non-commercial staple crops), but own less than two percent of the land. Improving the productivity of female farmers should thus be a central goal of governmental policy around the world. Yet the vast majority of extension services continue to be directed to commercial production by male farmers.
And still more needs to be done. The Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2012 Global Food Security Index noted that food security is closely correlated with human development (correlation 0.95) and women’s economic opportunity (correlation 0.93).
It’s not rocket science: Improving the position of female farmers leads to greater food availability because women smallholder farmers produce the food that people eat. Estimates of millions starving at the outset of the 2002 food crisis that rocked Southern Africa fortunately proved to be vastly overstated. At the time, observers speculated that some 15 million people in seven countries across Southern Africa were at risk of starvation. Looking back, we now know that initial projections for famine appeared to be vastly overstated. While hunger did occur, the forecast famine, fortunately, never materialized. There are several reasons for this: inaccurate crop forecasting, access to off-farm employment opportunities, the availability of other food sources like cassava, and informal, cross-border trade.
The gender dynamics of farming also played a central role in preventing famine, as women farmers place a greater importance on diversification of farm production as a hedge against risk. As maize crops failed, alternative staple crops grown by women for sale on local markets both provided short-term food for household consumption and permitted households to purchase maize imported on parallel markets. As a result, several nutritional surveys commissioned by relief agencies during the crisis found that malnutrition rates remained stable and well below the 10 percent cut off usually used to indicate acute malnutrition. It was the social relations of farming practices in Southern Africa, not food aid or Western intervention, that prevented famine in 2002.