Globally, women produce more than 50% of humanity's food supply. In sub-Saharan Africa and the Caribbean, they provide up to 80% of staple foods. In Asia, they perform up to 90% of the work in rice fields. After the harvest, rural women are almost entirely responsible for storage, handling, stocking, marketing and processing.
A new report by FAO and IFAD has thrown light on another dimension of farming women's plight. A survey in five countries of sub-Saharan Africa found that many rural women are helping to "feed the world" using inadequately designed and poorly made handtools, and lack the income, credit and training needed to shift to more efficient and productive technologies.
The study, "Agricultural implements used by women farmers in Africa", grew out of IFAD's concern that, while some progress had been made in improving post-harvest equipment for women, little had been done to provide better tools and implements used in agricultural production. AG's Agricultural Engineering Branch (AGSE) collaborated in the study, which coincided with FAO's increasing concern regarding gender aspects of agricultural engineering and farm power.
Group discussions. Conducted in Burkina Faso, Senegal, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe, the research involved group discussions with some 1,500 male and female farmers. It focused on areas of relatively poor agriculture, where women are assuming an ever-increasing role in farm work, and sought to ascertain farmers' perceptions of their work and identify operations where improvements in farm implements were needed.
The FAO/IFAD study found evidence of "a backlash of resentment on the part of men against what they saw as excessive emphasis on women in development programmes. As a result, some countries are developing a 'family focus' for development rather than focusing solely on women."
Yet the position of women has barely improved. "Women's access to cash from work on the family holding is usually minimal because men control cash crop revenues. Credit is virtually unavailable to women because land is ascribed to men and women can thus offer no collateral for loans.
"The only way that women can obtain land and credit is through women's groups," the report says. "However, the land allocated to them tends to be far from the village, and the women are seldom allowed to use it for more than two years because otherwise they would acquire permanent rights to it."
The low socio-economic status of women in the rural areas studied is reflected strongly in the production tools and implements they use. The lowest level of technology was found in Burkina Faso, where animal-draught implements and hand tools were found to be made of poor-quality scrap metal. The best tools and implements were noted in Zimbabwe, where they were produced by industries or blacksmiths, the latter having access to high-quality scrap from old plough shares and obsolete tractor-drawn implements.
"The hand-hoe is still the farm implement most used in all the countries reviewed," the FAO/IFAD study found. "However, the quality and durability of the hoe are often poor, and little can be done to improve its design." Many of the groups stated that the hand-hoe imposed severe limits on production and that they would never make progress without access to animal traction.
The study highlights the widespread use of short-handled hoes which, many women complained, often causes pain and fatigue. "Without doubt," the report says, "short-handled weeding hoes have the advantage of allowing the farmers full control of the hoe while he/she works around the plants, leaving the other hand free to pull out the weeds and shake the roots free of soil". But an alternative was found in the central region of Senegal: women there use a long-handled weeding hoe that allows them to stand upright and have almost totally abandoned traditional hoes that obliged them to work in a squatting or crouched position.
Working upright is perceived as "laziness". So why didn't women in other countries adopt long-handled hoes? "Almost everywhere except Senegal," the report says, "there is a widespread belief that work can be properly performed only if the worker is bent double and armed with a short-handled hoe. This type of cultural conditioning is an obstacle to the introduction of more comfortable long-handled implements, such as jab planters, since working upright is perceived as laziness." In Burkina Faso, one women's group said they would like longer handles on their hoes, but their husbands would never allow it.
Among the groups consulted, it was generally agreed that women needed different tools to men and that manufacturers should differentiate between the sexes. "Unfortunately, as a general rule, manufacturers and importers of tools and implements undertake no market research, have no follow-up links with their clients, do little to ensure that the full range of their wares is available at sales points, and seem to ignore the fact that, nowadays, the main users of their products are women. As a result, many implements, especially animal draught cultivators, are too heavy for females to use. Lighter models of hand-hoe that would make weeding easier for women are unavailable, and blacksmiths devote little time to consulting with their female clients.
In most areas, animal traction was seen as the solution to women farmers' problems: passing an animal-drawn inter-row cultivator through a crop can reduce weeding time per acre from two weeks to two days. However, the researchers found that the adoption of animal traction technology is slow, and in some countries is blocked by livestock diseases, lack of credit, and taboos on women working with cattle. (The report did note an exception: "There were no taboos against women working with donkeys, since donkeys are seen as low-class animals that involve less initial cost compared with bovines".)
Even where draught animal power was available, women were handicapped by a lack of information and training. "The majority of animal-traction training courses are aimed only at men, despite the fact that it is the women who really need them," the report says.
Recommendations for women's advancement. FAO and IFAD found no quick or simple solution to improving the quality of farming tools and implements used by women. However, the report proposes a number of measures that could begin to improve the situation. First, a major communication effort is needed to create greater awareness of the key role that women play in African farming and of their special needs for production equipment. The report urges private sector producers and importers of tools and implements to undertake market research with women, and governments to set tax and duty policies favourable to local production. Government farming services should involve women farmers in training activities, promote consultation between blacksmiths and female clients, and include advice on farm tools and implements in extension campaigns.
Finally, research and development programmes need to focus on the energy efficiency of different types of tools (for instance, matching hoe weights and blade widths to different soil types), work closely with potential users in testing imported tools, and investigate alternatives to the weeding hoe, including row planting and the use of donkeys with lightweight weeders.
But the report also recommends a more profound change in African agriculture: "It would be nice to imagine that Africa's overworked women could use tools and implements that save them time and effort, and give them the chance to rest and relax. But men's attitudes towards them will have to change before this is likely to happen. With more than 70% of all food production work now being carried out by women in Africa, and with household food security hanging in the balance in many countries, increased productivity and reduced workloads for women could well be central to improving family welfare."
Published October 1998