As we move into one of our harvest seasons this month in Uganda, we wanted to take a moment to reflect on the large role that women play in our global food systems. At the World Food Bank, we are committed to ensuring that our work helps to empower and support women at the local level in the regions where we work. At our farm in Mbarara, Uganda, 80% of our hires will be women. This month, we chatted with Leah Kasera, the Head of Region and Partnerships for Grow Africa, a network of partners that works to increase private sector investment in agriculture and accelerate the execution and impact of investment commitments. Here, Leah talks a little about the role of women in agriculture in East Africa.
WFB: What roles do women currently play in the agriculture sector in East Africa and across the continent?
Leah: Farming in Africa is done mostly by smallholder farmers – the majority of whom are women. In fact, 80% of the agricultural production comes from small farmers, who are mostly rural women. Women stand out as economic pillars and are central to all aspects of food security and nutrition, including off-farm activities in their communities. In Africa, women are traditionally care givers, and, even though the men head households, it is often the women that ensure that food is on the table. And so you find that women are the main workforce of the agricultural sector, yet only roughly 23% of households are headed by women. These women work farms to provide daily for their families and young ones. Agriculture supports the majority of livelihoods in the continent. Female economic activity is high as compared to other developing countries. The concentration of women in agriculture is not surprising given that this sector employs 80 percent of the overall labor force and contributes the same proportion to foreign exchange earnings.
WFB: What are the challenges facing women in agriculture in Africa?
Leah: A female coffee farmer in Ethiopia observes as follows: “The challenge we have is that the more valuable a supply chain becomes in terms of revenue, the more it tends to become a ‘man’s crop’. Women do a lot of the work in terms of farming, picking and managing, but when it comes to actually trading that coffee in the market place, it’s a man’s job”. Women in Africa are marginalized and face many challenges. While women are critical to smallholder agriculture, they’re often excluded from making important decisions, and they don’t always earn a fair wage for their work. They tend to be locked out of land ownership, suffer gender inequality, violence, stereotypes and sometimes harmful traditional practices. In most African cultures women do not inherit land – and even when they are from wealthy families the priority is often given to male household members. Since women do not ordinarily own assets this locks them from access to credit as they do not hold collateral. Where a woman can prove that she is married, an approval is often required from the husband to be able to access finance.
WFB: What can be done to empower African women more in the agricultural sector?
Leah: During the last 10 years, many African countries, such as Rwanda, have adopted new land laws in order to strengthen women’s land ownership rights. This has helped improve the situation of rural women. We can also do a lot more to support women in agriculture and help them to create a business from it, so they can transform their lives and those of their families. We can train women to run their farming as a business and to open savings accounts in banks or MFIs. We can engage more women in working closely with agricultural extension workers, so that they will be open to learning new ways of farming. We can also help women to register in groups and associations, such as farming coops, since it is easier to leverage the power of these groups to access services such as finance and insurance. We can also help women by including them more in trainings on environmental protection and climate change adaptation, as well as helping them create partnerships with organizations that embrace technology. For example, using technology, women farmers in Rwanda now know the exact size of their land and can better forecast production and access markets through digital, mobile-enabled platforms.
WFB: What would be the result, in your opinion, of more female empowerment in agriculture?
Leah: If women had the same access to productive resources as men, they could increase yields and raise total agricultural output on the African continent. It is known that families in which women influence economic decisions allocate more income to food, health, education and children’s nutrition. For example, in Ethiopia husbands are encouraged to bring their wives to training sessions, because women often feel more comfortable coming to a training when they are with their husbands. The strategy has paid off. Participation by women farmers has risen from one percent to more than 30 percent.
WFB: How are you and/or your company part of the solution to empowering women in this sector?
Leah: In the Potato VC in East Africa and in the Pineapple VC in West Africa, Grow Africa continues to highlight the success stories of women smallholder farmers. Through multi-stakeholder platforms, we increasingly and intentionally connect women farmers to finance and predictable markets through forward contracts. Grow Africa has also supported the setting up of farmer associations and ensured that women are represented on the Board.
WFB: Anything else you’d like to add?
Leah: Over 23,000 farmers (mostly women) in 13 potato growing counties have signed agreements with financial institutions for cheaper loans. Under the deal, they will have access to ready markets for their produce. To qualify, a farmer must belong to a group or a cooperative society and must own at least an acre of land. They will access loans from Kes.50,000 to Kes. 1 million at 14 percent interest rate from African Finance Corporation and Kenya Women Finance Trust. Under the two-year pilot project, farmers will be shown how to develop business plans, adopt mechanized farming and use certified seeds for improved production. Recently, I spoke at the National Potato Fair to advocate for this arrangement and say that farmers should take advantage of these incentives.
Leah Kasera is currently the Head of Region and Partnerships (East Africa) for Grow Africa, a network of partners that works to increase private sector investment in agriculture and accelerate the execution and impact of investment commitments. Her previous background covers engagement with public institutions and the private sector, holding decision-making and policy-pushing roles. Leah says she is motivated to do this work because she can see the effect that it has on transforming the lives of farmers, particularly women, in tangible and practical ways. To learn more about Grow Africa, please visit their website.