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NGOs, women and forestry activities in Africa

P.J. Williams

Paula J. Williams is a forest sociologist who has been working in sub-Saharan Africa for the past nine years. She now is based in Zanzibar, United Republic of Tanzania. Dr Williams coordinated the Women and Forestry Project referred to in this article.

Throughout Africa, women do much of the agricultural work as well as procuring firewood and water for household use and actively managing natural resources. Over the past two decades, the forestry development community has grown increasingly aware of the important roles played by women in forestry and natural resource management. Many community forestry, agroforestry and farm forestry activities have recognized women's major roles and have sought to promote their participation. NGOs have been particularly active in working with women.

This article focuses on some of the major issues concerning the relationship of women, NGOs and forestry activities in Africa. It first considers the situation regarding women in forestry, drawing extensively on the collaborative project, Women's Participation in Forestry Activities in Africa (hereafter called the Women and Forestry Project), which involved case-studies of forestry projects and two NGO meetings (see Box, Women and Forestry Project). Next, the role of NGOs working with women in the area of forestry and natural resource management is discussed.

Women and forestry in Africa

Throughout Africa, women are actively involved in a wide range of forest-related activities, both those of a spontaneous nature and those fostered through development projects and programmes. In fact, with the exclusion of industrial timber and charcoal production, African women are the protagonists in activities related to the management and use of forest resources. Particularly important is the gathering of fuelwood, for domestic energy, as well as fruits, leaves, gums and medicinal products both for household use and sale in local markets. Women's participation in the production and dissemination of fuel-efficient cookstoves, in agroforestry, tree nurseries and horticulture are also well-documented (Abega, 1991; FAO, 1985a; FAO, 1985b; FAO, 1988; Gumbo, Maramba and Mukamuri, 1989).

Throughout Africa, women are Involved In a wide range of forest-related activities - the gathering of fuelwood for domestic energy Is particularly important

Women and Forestry Project

Building on previous work by FAO, the World Bank and Environment Liaison Centre International (ELCI) on women's participation in forestry, the aim of the Women and Forestry Project was to document and disseminate information on women's participation in African forestry activities, including constraints to increasing this participation and strategies to overcome these constraints. Financial support for the project was provided by FAO's Forest, Trees and People Programme (FTPP), the World Bank, the World Resources Institute (WRI), ELCI, the African Network for Integrated Development (ANID), the Ford Foundation, the Institute of Current World Affairs (ICWA) and the General Services Foundation.

A group of researchers, most of whom were African women, conducted the casestudies. Five of the case-studies documented NGO forestry projects in Kenya (Chavangi, 1988), the Sudan (Furfey and Osheik, 1990), Cameroon (Abega, 1991), Zimbabwe (Gumbo, Maramba and Mukamuri, 1989) and Botswana (Walker, 1990). The workshop also discussed an NGO project in Somalia (Lewis, 1991). Case-studies also covered three bilateral forestry projects in the United Republic of Tanzania (Khatibu and Suleiman, 1991), Senegal (Niang, 1992) and Mali (Diarra and Berthé, 1991).

With ELCI and ANID, the project convened two meetings of NGOs and researchers. The first meeting, held in Nairobi in January 1990, reviewed the draft case-studies, discussed emerging issues and planned a larger workshop. The second meeting was a bilingual NGO workshop, held in M'Bour, Senegal, in October 1990. Thirty-five participants attended from the Benin, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Kenya, Mali, Namibia, Senegal, the Sudan, Tanzania and Zimbabwe. During the workshop, seven projects were presented and three village projects were visited. Participants identified major issues, strategies and lessons from the case-studies and other experiences and recommended how existing NGO efforts could be strengthened.

Based on the case-studies and workshop, ELCI is preparing a policy paper and a resource guide for NGOs, both of which will be available in English and French. Some case-study findings have already been summarized (Williams, 1991a; 1991b) and efforts are under way to publish the studies. The case-studies and NGO workshop discussions revealed common visions of development, forestry and women in Africa. These visions suggest the need for broader NGO strategies that are beyond the scope of individual forestry projects.


The workshop participants shared a vision of development that is people-centred and sustainable. Development must be a bottom-up participatory process. Women must be involved not only in the labour for forestry activities but also in decision-making and the control of resources. Key concerns for promoting women's participation in natural resource development activities focus on their access to and control over resources. Discussions emphasized the importance of two major types of resource: land, trees and other natural resources; and information and knowledge. Building on women's existing knowledge and environmental management skills is fundamental for their empowerment and their taking control of their lives. This approach to development is one that is widely endorsed by many African NGOs.


Discussions of popular participation in forestry -whether by NGOs, communities or women -usually focus on the topics of community forestry, farm forestry or agroforestry. Workshop participants stressed three concerns about this focus.

First, the need to consider more carefully whether women and other participants actually benefit from their participation in forestry and tree-planting activities. Do participants retain or gain access to and control over resources? Second, the need to focus more on income generation and other short-term benefits. While women may provide voluntary labour for environmental rehabilitation efforts, they also need income. Many forestry projects typically offer paid employment to men but expect only voluntary unpaid labour from women. Third, the need to broaden community forestry to encompass commercial forestry. In many African countries, community forestry activities encompass only a minor portion of the forestry sector. To understand human use of trees and determine whether forestry responds to people's needs, we must consider the entire orientation and funding of forestry activities as well as the respective roles of governments and NGOs.

Throughout Africa, efforts are needed to train more women in forestry and natural resource activities in order to enhance their participation at all levels - from grassroots to international policy (Williams, 1989a). NGOs play a vital role in training extension officers and rural participants and they also can work with governments to shift the focus of professional and technical training of foresters more toward working with people.


Women are the key to the development of Africa and Africa's resources. Empowering women to ensure a better use, management and control of resources is vital for sustainable forestry development. Many NGOs have taken the lead in working with women to attain this goal.

Involving women does not mean excluding men. Depending on the cultural and social situation and on the particular activities, women and men may, and often should, work together on forestry projects, either in community groups or as members of households.

The most important element in women's participation in forestry activities is not the trees but the women. The principal reason for enhancing the role of women in forestry is to improve their living standards. Women themselves must determine their own needs, priorities and possibilities for action. By working together, government officials and NGOs can help women take appropriate resource management decisions.

Although less intensively studied in the African context, there are examples of women's participation in soil and water conservation as well as watershed management activities (Cape Verde, Burkina Faso, Senegal, the Sudan). For example, in a project focusing on erosion control in Noogo-Yatenga, Burkina Faso, women accounted for 75 percent of the labour force.

Constraints to women's involvement in forestry

There are a number of obstacles that impede the fuller participation of women in forestry activities in Africa. Key constraints, evidenced by numerous studies (FAO, 1989) and confirmed by the participants in the Women and Forestry Project discussions, include: restricted access to productive resources, particularly tenurial rights to land and trees; lack of mobility because of household responsibilities and social customs; lack of time because of other responsibilities; limited access to information, training, education, credit and marketing channels and other inputs.

Tenure. Of all these constraints, problems of access and tenure are by far the most important. In many countries in Africa, recent titling programmes have allocated land that was traditionally managed by women to male heads of household, effectively removing women from the decision-making process. In Burkina Faso, for example, women lost a valuable source of shea nuts, traditionally collected for food and as a source of income, when village lands were cleared of shrubs in order to establish fast-growing pole plantations. In one region of Kenya, women were discouraged from raising trees because tree-planting traditionally establishes tenurial rights to land and the men were afraid of losing control.

The Green Belt Movement, sponsored by the National Council of Women of Kenya, Is helping to overcome constraints to women's participation In tree-planting activities

Women s participation
Successful NGO initiatives

Kenya Woodfuel Development Programme in western Kenya

In this area of Kenya there is a serious shortage of fuelwood, yet women responsible for fuelwood procurement - are traditionally prevented from planting trees as this activity conveys land tenure. The approach developed to overcome this constraint was the introduction of non-local. Multipurpose and fast-growing fuelwood species that are not subject to cultural taboos. Communication strategies aimed at the entire community - an essential consideration as the consent of the land-controlling men was a key factor - were used to provoke discussions of forestry and gender issues. The project used live drama, video shows and comic books to reach and motivate community members (Chavangi, 1988).

Mobility and time. In many African societies, women are closely tied to the home, both by custom and family responsibilities. Forestry activities that require travel away from the home may therefore tend to exclude women. Closely related to lack of mobility is lack of time. In Africa as a whole, men have primary responsibility for land clearing and preparation of the soil for planting; responsibility for all other activities - care and feeding of the family, the processing, storing and marketing of agricultural products, the management of domestic livestock, etc. - falls at least equally, and in many cases almost entirely, on women. Forestry activities that increase women's workloads without providing benefits that enable them to reduce their efforts in other areas are not likely to be acceptable.

Women s participation
Successful NGO initiatives

SOS Sahel Community Forestry Project in the northern Sudan

This project aims to combat desertification through the establishment of tree nurseries, woodlots and shelter-belts. As women are not allowed to mix freely with men outside the household, the project trained young women from the region to work as forestry assistants with local women. In addition, a separate women's section was established in the village woodlot and constraints related to mobility were overcome by promoting women's home nurseries. In 1988, over 2 000 women in 18 villages had grown trees in home nurseries. It is noteworthy that the focus on women also permitted the resolution of problems faced by both men and women. For example' one problem was insect (particularly termite) damage to the nurseries. The women overcame this constraint by putting neem (Azadrichta indica) leaves in and near the seedling beds. This was safer than the use of commercial pesticides and also less costly. In 1990, the project was working with women in 29 villages. The project has a well-developed extension programme which also features puppet shows (Wiliams, 1987; Furfey and Osheik, 1990; El Amin, 1990).

Information, training, education. Many of the established mechanisms for the dissemination of information and technology make it difficult for women to derive full benefits. For example, meetings or extension sessions scheduled during the day may conflict with women's household responsibilities. In addition, extension agents and trainers are usually men; they may not be sensitized to women's priorities and needs and may not even be permitted by social custom to meet with women. Moreover, extension agents are often unable to communicate in local languages; for women, with a generally lower formal education than men, this is an additional constraint.

Lack of access to credit is another important constraint. Because of their limited mobility and access to information, women may not be adequately informed about credit. Even when they are aware of the existence of credit programmes, these schemes often require titles to land or other collateral, thus effectively excluding women.

NGOs have developed innovative responses to social customs that might restrict women's participation In activities outside the household or the company of men

NGOs potential to facilitate women's participation in forestry

A wide range of NGOs work actively on forestry issues in Africa. They include small grassroots groups and operational NGOs, national and international networking organizations, development NGOs, environmental and conservation NGOs and policy research organizations. There are a number of directories and data bases covering African NGO activities in forestry and other aspects of environmental and natural resource management. A Directory of NGOs in the forestry sector. Second Africa edition (International Tree Project Clearinghouse, 1987) listed 210 African NGOs involved in forestry activities, and the number has certainly increased over the past five years.

NGO participation in development activities, in general, and in the forestry sector in particular, varies enormously. In some African countries, for example Senegal and Kenya, the NGO sector is quite developed. Governments and NGOs may work very close together; government foresters may be seconded to NGO forestry projects, for instance. In other countries, the extent of NGO involvement is small or only just beginning; government officials appear to suspect NGOs of being "antigovernment" and, consequently, try to control or restrict their activities.

Some African women's NGOs have been very active in forestry activities, such as the National Council of Women of Kenya's Green Belt Movement and the reforestation activities launched by the Association of Women's Clubs (AWC) in Zimbabwe. The loins Environment and Energy Programme (JEEP) in Uganda has a special programme for women's activities while other NGOs work with women as part of their overall efforts to collaborate with rural communities. Most African NGOs working on environmental issues are headed by men, but women are found increasingly in senior positions.

Women s participation
Successful NGO initiatives

ENDA's Chivi-Zvishavane Demonstration Project on Community-based Management of Indigenous Woodlands in southern Zimbabwe

This project works with women and men in 38 villages on environmental rehabilitation and management of indigenous woodlands. By making a special effort to reach women, the project extension officers overcame a male bias of the local administrative units, the Village Development Committees. Although the project was not specifically aimed at women, women have done most of the work in establishing the village plantations (Gumbo, Maramba and Mukamuri, 1989).

Tlhareseleele Horticultural Project in southeastern Botswana

This project is run by a small village cooperative, composed of 13 women and two men, which is growing timber trees, fruit-trees and vegetables. Members earn an income and can purchase fruits and vegetables from the cooperative at half-price. By establishing themselves as a cooperative, the group gained access to land and water resources that would not have been accorded to an individual, and certainly not to an individual woman. Regarding the balance of products produced, the cooperative structure also enabled the group to be more flexible in its decisions compared with woodlots organized under village development committees (Williams, 1989b; Walker, 1990). Similar efforts are now being launched in many other communities.

Notwithstanding their diversity, in many cases NGOs involved in forestry activities in Africa have important potential as a means to overcome some of the above-mentioned constraints and thereby boost the participation of women in forestry and natural resources management. Some of the strengths (and also weaknesses) of NGOs are examined in the context of African examples of forestry work in the following paragraphs (Pandey, 1991) and in the case-studies of successful NGO efforts to overcome constraints to women's participation (see relevant Boxes).

Women extension agents can often be more effective in reaching women

The positive examples presented in the following section are not intended to endorse NGO involvement as the only way to promote the involvement of women in forestry activities in Africa. Although NGOs have strengths in working with local people and women in particular, they also face certain constraints. In Africa many NGOs are relatively young and inexperienced. Most face organizational, institutional or funding difficulties and many have limited expertise in working on forestry and natural resources issues. These constraints (which require much additional study) will always need to be considered when analysing the role and potential of individual NGOs in specific forestry activities.

Grassroots links

Many operational NGOs have extension agents who live in rural communities, speak the local languages and share local concerns. This advantage can be particularly important in reaching and working with rural women who may not speak national languages.

In northern Cameroon, for example, CARE International works with women in 18 villages. Only 4 percent of the project participants speak French but the project extension agents speak the local languages -Mafa, Kapsiki and Fulfudé as well as French. One agent, Dolores Doukaya, explained that her training in rural extension "would have been a total failure if she had not succeeded in adapting the project message into a language more accessible to the rural women" (Abega, 1991).

Women's participation
Successful NGO initiatives

CARE International's Women's Cooperative Enterprises Project in northern Cameroon

This project began as a pilot subproject within a larger village agroforestry project. IN the first two years, women extension agents helped 200 women in 18 villages to form women's cooperatives for income-generating activities. They produced fruit-tree seedlings or sale and have since expanded into vegetable production. The women are exploring ways to diversify their activities further (Williams, 1989c; Abega, 1991).

Overseas Education Fund International Community Forestry Project in northwestern Somalia

From 1987 to 1989, this project worked with refugees and the local population on environmental rehabilitation. The project marked the first attempt in the country to air the national agency responsible forestation (the National Range Agency) with the national women's organization (the Somali Women's Democratic Organization SWDO) to overcome institutional biases hat limited women's participation in forestry. A training programme helped provide SWDO members with basic forestry skills so that they could train local omen to run tree nurseries and plant trees, half the paid jobs went to women. Emphasis as placed on human skills and small business development. Women planted most of the 100 000 shade trees around the refugee camps One women's group began an agroforestry plantation, grew vegetables for sale, while mother group established a commercial fruit-tree nursery (Lewis, 1991).

To work with women, NGO project staff usually make their first contact with village authorities, including women leaders. They then contact the village women, either individually or through a group meeting. They may work with existing grassroots groups or else the village women may form a new group or committee to carry out forestry activities.

In Louly Bentange, Senegal, an extension agent working for the African Network for Integrated Development trained women to build their own improved mud stoves. These stoves save fuel and time and reduce the risk of children getting accidentally burnt. Once the village women had mastered the skills needed, they were able to continue their activities autonomously and the extension agent could thus move on to work in another village.

Flexibility in development approaches

The ENDA-Zimbabwe project uses a variety of extension approaches to work with rural residents in different communities. In some villages, Environment and Development in the Third World (ENDA) works with households whereas, in other villages, project facilitators work with existing groups, such as church groups or women's garden groups, who express an interest in planting trees. Although the project does not focus specifically on promoting women's participation, women make up over half the participants. Particularly affected by the region's environmental degradation, women are more motivated to undertake activities to combat it (Gumbo, Mararnba and Mukamuri, 1989).

Integrated activities

It is often easier for NGOs (as opposed to governments) to adopt an integrated rather than sectoral approach to development. For example, with assistance from a CARE International community forestry project in northern Cameroon, women organized themselves into cooperatives to grow fruit-tree seedlings and vegetables. As their cooperatives developed and gained experience, the women expressed a desire to expand into non-forestry activities. CARE therefore assisted in the development of the Women's Cooperative Enterprises Project, including activities related to wells, health and nutrition. The wells have provided water for the women's nurseries while the health and nutrition components have enhanced women's ability to participate in the forestry activities (Abega, 1991; Williams, 1989c).

Another example of integrated development activities are the extension materials developed by the Kenya Woodfuel Development Programme. The project produced a play entitled, "So firewood can wreck a home?" and an illustrated book of the play was produced in the local language. Although focusing on fuelwood, the comic book touches on many related concepts. It was so popular that it was also produced in English for language teaching in the local schools (Noel Chavangi, personal communication, 1989).

Women forestry extension agents

Most NGOs that successfully work with women have women extension staff. For example, the Kenya Woodfuel Development Programme's rural extension activities were headed by a woman. The ENDA-Zimbabwe project hired women village extension agents. Botswana's horticultural cooperative received technical assistance from the woman extension officer for the Forestry Association of Botswana. The African Network for Integrated Development has women extension officers. Some NGOs, such as SOS Sahel in the Sudan, CARE in Cameroon, and the Overseas Education

Fund (OEF) in Somalia, have been successful at recruiting teams of local women and training them for forestry extension work.

Notwithstanding these good examples, in most African countries, nearly all government forestry agents are men and there is a visible reluctance to hire women, even those who have gained valuable experience through work with NGOs. For example, the OEF's International Community Forestry Project in northwestern Somalia involved women at all levels of project management, field implementation and training. Strategies were devised to overcome biases against women's participation in the project, both as project personnel and as beneficiaries. These strategies included staff training courses which focused on project role definition, technical forestry skills and income generation. A hiring board, established for the project, negotiated for 50 percent of the jobs to go to women (Lewis, 1991). However, when the project ended, neither the government nor the new donor project hired the women extension agents.

The Kenya Woodfuel Development Programme produced a comic book to focus popular attention on the fuelwood problem

Complement government activities

NGOs can complement government approaches to forest and reforestation activities, forestry research and policy issues. Some NGOs working primarily or initially with women, for example the National Council of Women of Kenya (its Green Belt Movement) and the Association of Women's Clubs in Zimbabwe' have been key actors in launching nationwide reforestation activities with local participation.

The Kenyan Energy and Environmental NGOs (KENGO) have actively promoted research on indigenous tree species and spurred government forestry departments to follow suit. The Association of African Women for Research and Development (AAWORD) focuses research attention on the natural resource priorities of women while forging links between women at a grassroots level and women researchers and advising governments and multilateral organizations. AAWORD holds regular international and national meetings and publishes research findings.

Sharing information and training

NGOs can play a vital role in networking and information sharing. For example, since 1990, Environmental Liaison Centre International (ELCI) has conducted a research project on women's indigenous environmental management while its Women, Environment and Development Network (WEDNET) provides information on women's and environmental activities and research in its project newsletter, WEDNEWS. The African Women's Development and Communication Network (FEMNET) publishes a newsletter and holds periodic workshops.

NGOs also can share information through workshops, study tours and training courses. The Green Belt Movement, for example, has conducted training courses for women from other African countries to share the experiences and approaches developed in Kenya (Mathai, 1988). Many participants in the workshop, held under the Women and Forestry Project, were particularly interested in concrete suggestions to apply to their own work. For example, only three days after the workshop ended, the president of the Women's Group in Popenguine, Senegal, held a meeting with the women in her home village to discuss possibilities for building improved cookstoves based on techniques she had learnt in the workshop.


Forestry is clearly not just about trees; rather, it concerns the use and management of trees to meet human needs at both local and broader levels. Forestry activities, although requiring a long-term perspective, must provide short-term benefits, particularly at the local level, if they are to be sustainable. Moreover, these short-term benefits must accrue to all sectors of the population that have an influence on the use and management of forest resources. In Africa, a growing recognition of the dominant role of women in the use of forest resources has focused attention on the need to involve them more fully in forestry development activities, and particularly on the need to ensure that they are able to derive a fair share of the benefits from these activities. Although they are not a panacea, NGOs have demonstrated their important potential - both independently and in collaboration with government-implemented efforts - for helping to enable women to participate in and benefit from all phases of forestry development activities.


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