The world is fed on the backs of rural women

By Kanayo F. Nwanze, IFAD President

When I am asked to describe a typical smallholder farmer my usual response is: she has a baby on her back, a hoe in her hand, and firewood balanced on her head. And yet, she continues to forge ahead to carve out a life for herself and her family. Not only are women farming, they are still carrying out their traditional chores of managing the home while also caring for the children, collecting fuel and water that can take hours every day.

In developing countries in Africa, Asia and the Pacific, women typically work 12-13 more hours per week than men. In Africa, women provide the bulk of the labour required to produce basic food crops. One half of all smallholder farmers are women and they need our support to feed the 2bn people who depend on the world’s 500m smallholder farms.

The advancement of women is an essential prerequisite to overall development. Yet, in spite of strong evidence showing the link between gender inequality and poverty, women throughout the world continue to have significantly less access to assets, services and decision-making than men. In many of the poorest countries, there is still an unacceptably wide gap between what women do and what they have. And if we do not close this gap, we risk keeping the more than 1bn hungry people – one out of every six people – struggling to feed themselves.

Feeding the world’s poor and hungry is the challenge of our time. During the multi-fold hike in food and fuel prices in late 2007, food prices spiked to levels not seen since the end of the second world war triggering riots in more than 40 countries. And all the signs are that another crisis could be round the corner as it is estimated that food prices are set to rise as much as 40 percent over the coming decade.

The causes of this lie in the shameful neglect of agriculture of the past two decades. Both developed and developing countries – caught up in rapid economic expansion and technological development – got distracted. They turned off the tap to agriculture.

At the International Fund for Agricultural Development, we never stopped and neither did smallholder farmers in developing countries – especially women small farmers who continue to innovate and seek out opportunities to create a better life for themselves.

Take, for example, Maimuna Omary Ikanga, a small farmer and entrepreneur in the Babati district of the United Republic of Tanzania, who learned through an IFAD-supported programme to increase her profits by selling her produce at peak market times. She then used that extra money to invest in a satellite dish, a television set and a generator to create a new business venture by charging fellow villagers to watch the football matches during the World Cup.

There are eight, time-bound Millennium Development Goals that aim at tackling poverty in its many dimensions. IFAD believes that the third goal – the one dealing specifically with supporting gender equality – can lead the way to accomplishing the other goals. If we can better support women farmers – that is every other person, or more specifically, half of the world’s smallholder farmers – food security can be within reach for the 2bn people who rely on them. But with only five years left, it would be an understatement to say that time is running out and challenges must be overcome.

An investment in rural women and young girls is an investment in the future of rural communities and any nation that doesn’t provide opportunities for them will not reach its full potential. Studies indicate that when women earn money, they are more likely than men to spend it on food for the family. In Côte d’Ivoire, for example, a $10 increase in women’s income was found to bring about the same level of improvement in child health and nutrition as a $110 increase in men’s income. And according to the World Bank, Indian states with the highest percentage of women in the labour force grew the fastest and had the largest reductions in poverty.

The barriers for rural women, however, are considerable. Access to land is a major impediment in many developing countries for women farmers. It is a critical asset, not only for production, but also as a means of securing access to credit and other resources. Women’s access to land continues to flow through their male relatives, irrespective of the formal legal framework. And while women provide much of the labour on crop production, they have limited access to resources that can help them improve their production, such as credit and agricultural training.

Women in Africa constitute the majority of farmers, yet they receive less than 10 percent of small farm credit and own only 1 percent of land. Additionally, the International Food Policy Research Institute has estimated that women can increase the yields of some crops by 22 percent if given the same levels of education and experience as men.

Without a significant investment in improving the livelihoods, assets and decision-making power of rural women, reduction in poverty and food insecurity are unlikely to be achieved. Donors, policymakers, development practitioners and agribusinesses must significantly shift their thinking about women, food security, agriculture and the global marketplace.

We must work together to improve women’s access to agricultural resources such as seeds, fertilizers, credit as well as access to agricultural information, services and training. In particular, significant progress must be made in Africa to advance both women’s empowerment and their status in society – particularly with regard to land and credit. In Benin, IFAD has seen success after introducing New Rice for Africa, or Nerica, which allows farmers to cultivate two or three crops a year with much higher yields. Women in Benin have used the money from their extra profits to build houses for themselves, which in turn has boosted their confidence and reputation in their communities.

No nation, no society can progress by supporting only half of its population. If we live up to the commitments and declarations we have made, then we should see in the next decade that the typical smallholder farmer has her children in school and resources within reach to create a better life. This can only happen when these commitments and declarations are not left on paper, but backed up by collective action. Together we must lift the weight off the back of the woman smallholder farmer so that she can feed her family, her community and our world.

As published by This is Africa of Financial Time Limited