If horticulture becomes profitable, men may take over [G. Napolitano/FAO]

What are "women's crops", and why?

Farming women may grow lower-value subsistence crops not because they prefer to, but because they cannot access the resources that would permit them to do otherwise

by Sabine Guendel

Cash and export crops are frequently regarded as "men's crops" and subsistence crops as "women's crops". The standard explanation for this division is that women are responsible for feeding the family and thus prefer to grow subsistence crops for the household, whereas men are responsible for providing cash income and thus raise cash and export crops.

In general, however, it is difficult to tell whether women grow lower-value subsistence crops because they have different preferences and concerns or because they cannot access the land, inputs, credit, information, and markets that would permit them to do otherwise. In Ghana, for instance, women farmers view maize production as a productive, income-generating activity yet refrain from growing maize because they lack the capital to purchase the required inputs or hire someone to plough the fields. Instead they continue cultivating cassava and yams, which require fewer external inputs.

Division of labour "blurred"

Numerous time allocation studies have examined which household members perform which farm tasks. These studies often identify some tasks as men's tasks and others as women's tasks. For example, in Kenya women reported that men were responsible for building the granary and women were clearly responsible for hand digging, harvesting, and transporting the crops. Although many tasks may be viewed as exclusively women's or men's, in practice the divisions are blurred, and both men and women are involved. Relatively few tasks are done only by men or only by women.

That women throughout Africa tend to provide more labour for agriculture than men—and almost always provide more total labour—has implications for technology adoption. Even if they know they can increase productivity, women may be unable to increase the number of hours that they spend working. Simple comparisons of hours worked do not capture issues related to the type of work being done and the energy expended. The value of time will vary by season and task. Thus, people will be interested in saving the time that is the most costly. However, to the extent that the tasks vary by gender and the value of women's time is lower, farmers may be more inclined to adopt technologies that save men's time.

The gender division of labour appears to change in response to changing economic opportunities. When men leave agricultural communities in search of higher earnings, women assume many traditionally "men's tasks". Men usually move into traditionally "women's crop activities" when those activities are perceived as having become more productive or profitable. Women in Burkina Faso traditionally picked shea nuts, for example, but now that sales of shea nuts are profitable, men are becoming involved, often with the assistance of their wives. Another factor behind changes in labour allocation for different tasks is the adoption of new technologies. For instance, the mechanization of "women's tasks" may cause men to take greater control of those tasks. The extent to which these changes benefit or disadvantage women and men is not always clear, and it is difficult to predict a priori what changes will occur.

Research and extension systems can become more effective in developing sustainable crop production systems if they adopt a gender perspective that heightens their understanding of the distinct roles, needs and opportunities of different household members. Many studies show that men and women have different preferences and criteria for choosing among crops and varieties and performing such activities as selecting seed, cultivating, harvesting, and processing. Because women tend to manage complex farming systems, they have developed multiple assessment criteria for crop system performance, encompassing risk minimization, vulnerability and other objectives that must be considered in promoting innovations.

Local knowledge of men and women farmers is an important asset in innovation and technology development, especially for such key crop production issues as seed management, plant breeding, crop protection, and soil fertility management. Understanding gender differences in local knowledge and recognizing the contribution women can make in this field are important, because women are more frequently involved in traditional farming practices. Knowledge difference can reveal important opportunities to contribute to crop improvement or crop and variety selection. Knowledge differences must also be understood to improve the effectiveness of any technology dissemination or extension process.

Women's needs for technology and information

Information—appropriate information, given and received on a timely basis—is critical to the development and use of technical innovations and improvements, yet women frequently cannot obtain such information. Agricultural research and development, including extension services, have been dominated by men and have largely ignored women's role in crop production and have not focused on women's needs for technology and information. Social norms and cultural practices can prevent women from participating in development interventions or information campaigns. Using more appropriate information channels is one way to address this situation. Another strategy is to provide more relevant information by specifically addressing gender aspects of crop production.

Over the last two centuries, societies have invested considerably in complex institutional arrangements to advance technological innovation in agriculture. Many of these institutions have overlooked women and have marginalized women farmers in terms of technology adoption. Gender-responsive actions should enable women farmers to take greater advantage of extension systems and increase the accessibility of new agricultural technologies and innovations. Organizational innovations, such as participatory research, farmer-extension linkages, and strengthening the linkages between formal and local seed systems, can improve women's livelihood outcomes by ensuring that technologies meet their needs.


Sabine Guendel is a consultant in agriculture and natural resource management, with extensive experience in Latin America and East Africa. She is an Associate Lecturer with the Open University, Social Science Department, for "Earth in Crisis:  environmental policies in an international context". This article was adapted from "Gender in crop production" in Gender in agriculture sourcebook (World Bank, FAO, IFAD, 2009)

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