Agricultural investment and land: Are women losing out?

By Harold Liversage, regional land advisor, and Steven Jonckheere, land and natural resources associate for IFAD in East and Southern Africa.

Multi-stakeholder Conference on Agricultural Investment, Gender and Land in Africa
The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS), the Future Agricultures Consortium, and the Land Policy Initiative (LPI) of the African Union, the African Development Bank and the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, jointly organised a multi-stakeholder conference for the African Region "Multi-stakeholder Conference on Agricultural Investment, Gender and Land in Africa: Towards inclusive, equitable and socially responsible investment" in Cape Town, South Africa from 5 to 7 March 2014. The conference was co-sponsored and supported by IFAD, the Ford Foundation, Omidyar Network and the International Land Coalition.

The aim of the conference was to promote an open exchange of experiences and evidence-based knowledge on the implications of agricultural investments for rural livelihoods, gender relations, and social differentiation among a wide range of stakeholders, including government, private sector, civil society, rural organizations, academia, donors and development agencies representatives. The conference featured research findings by a range of institutions and networks, as well as experience from projects, investment sites and investment partnerships, with the purpose to critically review existing primary agriculture investment practices as well as relevant policy and institutional set-ups in order to identify good practices, promising strategies, approaches and policy measures that can be promoted and adapted to national contexts to foster inclusive, equitable and socially responsible agriculture investment that respect the rights of local communities and promote sustainable economic growth within a framework of social and gender equality.

Research into gender and land-based investments
Women are both likely to be affected differently to men by large-scale land deals and disproportionately more likely to be negatively affected than men because they are generally vulnerable as a group. As pointed out by Daley (2011), this vulnerability is four-fold. First, it arises through the constraints and systemic discrimination that women generally face in relation to their access to, ownership of, and control of land, including the level of legal protection of their land rights. Second, women’s vulnerability arises through the systemic discrimination they generally face in sociocultural and political relations, most particularly in relation to their role in decision-making, and their ability to exercise freely both “voice” and “choice” in decisions that affect their lives and livelihoods. Third, women’s vulnerability also arises through the more general state of their relative (cash) income poverty vis-à-vis men. It is not always easy to separate out women’s relative income poverty from the discrimination they face in relation both to productive resources and to participation in decision-making, both of which contribute to poverty, but it is nonetheless a different dimension of their vulnerability. Fourth, and not least, it arises through women’s general physical vulnerability vis-à-vis men, as manifested in direct gender-based and sexual violence against women.

Outgrower schemes, where farmers cultivate their own or leased land, are often deemed more ‘inclusive’ than plantation models. In practice, they are often accessed more by men than women, but this doesn’t have to be the case, as highlighted by IIED (2013). Research commissioned by FAO and IIED studied two ‘broadly inclusive’ commercial ventures (in Ghana and Zambia) that include outgrower schemes. The studies confirm that close attention is needed to ensure women get a fair deal from agricultural investments. They show that although outcomes for women cannot be generalised, women do not always get a fair deal; that broadly ‘inclusive’ investments do not automatically benefit women; and that wage labour may be more appealing to some women than is usually acknowledged.

According to Chan (2010), women are less likely to benefit from companies’ smallholder sourcing and support programs than men, as the following trends show: fewer women are members of company contract farming schemes than men; many companies source from established producer groups, yet women are typically underrepresented in both the membership and governance of these groups; on male-owned farms, female family members do much of the work, yet receive little of the income from crop sales and have little say in how that income is spent; and, women are much less likely than men to benefit from technical training and extension programs. Clearly, there are social and moral reasons for seeking to redress these imbalances. However, several leading global food companies have started to recognize that improving opportunities for women in smallholder-based supply chains would not only help achieve social responsibility aims; it could also deliver commercial benefits by improving productivity, quality, and future viability of key smallholder crops.

IFAD experiences
Different types of land-based investments in different contexts, however, result in a variety of gender-differentiated outcomes. The IFAD- supported Vegetable Oil Development Project was presented and this case shows that women can benefit from these deals, but that proactive measures are needed to improve the opportunities for women in smallholder-based supply chains. VODP started with a thorough gender analysis at the design stage to identify the particular needs and challenges of women. Based on this assessment, specific measures were taken to increase their opportunities for improved participation. Among these, the most important have been:

  • increasing and strengthening women’s access to land; 
  • increasing women’s membership and participation in smallholder sourcing schemes; 
  • ensuring women benefit from technical training, extension services and production inputs; and, 
  • introducing the household mentoring approach in order to promote gender equality and women’s empowerment at household level. 
Other IFAD experiences were also presented: Malibiocarburant in Mali, Lower Usuthu Smallholder Irrigation Project in Swaziland and the Participatory Smallholder Agriculture and Artisanal Fisheries Development Programme in São Tomé & Principe.

We would like encourage you to share your ideas and experiences so we can continue raising awareness of the important role played by women in smallholder-based supply chains, of the constraints they face, and of the potential commercial benefits to be gained from removing these constraints.