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July 2001

Agricultural implements used by women farmers in Africa
Findings of a study conducted in 1998

Gender and development fact sheets

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The Issue

Why is it that manufacturers, public authorities and research and development institutes show so little interest in the tools and implements that are used primarily by women for basic farm work? What changes could all the stakeholders involved initiate in order to improve the situation?

Technical details of the study

  • Partners: International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), Government of Japan, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), Farm-level Applied Research Methods for East and Southern Africa (FARMESA) Programme, Agrisystems Ltd, plus one voluntary worker and eight field researchers per country.

  • Length of study: Field research was conducted between August and November 1997 and final report submitted in February 1998.

  • Countries participating: Burkina Faso, Senegal, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe. The study was conducted in rural areas where subsistence farming is prevalent.

  • Methodology used: (a) in each country, segregated male and female thematic discussion groups consisting of 8 to 12 people, each with a male or female facilitator and observer. Informal participatory discussions in local languages among the members of each group on socio-economic conditions; (b) meetings with key informants such as government officials, manufacturers (small- and large-scale), banks, universities and non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

  • Key figures: 155 discussion groups in all, 35 with men only or men and women; 1 530 people were involved in the groups; 52 meetings with key informants were held.

Action taken

A recent study has tried to answer these two questions. Despite the cultural, social, economic and technological differences among the five countries covered by the study, they all have certain features in common.

Scope of the study and constraints faced by African women farmers

The precarious economic status of African women farmers has a direct bearing on the type of tools and the way they are used. Women’s direct income from their farming activities is minimal, and this lack of hard cash reduces their possibilities of purchasing the necessary tools. Access to long-term financial resources such as credit is made even more difficult by conditions imposed by both social and banking rules and regulations. Men are usually the preferred beneficiaries of any credit granted by financial institutions; the reason most often given for this is because they are the holders of land deeds, usually the main source of creditworthiness. In practice, women have no land ownership.

Men are increasingly absent from the family home, as job opportunities, improved transport infrastructures and a wider range of activities boost male migration to urban areas. In more tragic circumstances, situations of conflict or war also take men away from their families. Women and children then find themselves left on their own to carry out most of the family tasks, particularly farm work.

Activities involved

  • Ploughing
  • Tilling
  • Hoeing
  • Weeding
  • Planting
  • Gathering
  • Harvesting

The division of farm work between men and women has become blurred compared with the past, as women are now more frequently carrying out tasks that were previously men’s responsibility. However, they receive no recognition for this from the community, and hence draw no positive benefit from their increased responsibilities.

In some countries, development efforts in general, and the particular attention given to women-in-development programmes, have created a backlash of resentment from men in the community. This attitude has, in several cases, led to an increase in men’s control over women, thus further curtailing women’s purchasing and decision-making powers regarding farm work.

Interaction between culture and technology

All these constraints pose a serious obstacle to any improvement in the tools and implements being used by women farmers in the five countries covered by the study. In addition, there are more specific cultural factors that have a direct impact on African women farmers’ choice of tools and techniques, on ergonomics and on the overall conditions of their farm work. In most of the countries studied, the discussion groups stressed the fact that obvious technical solutions often clashed with religious beliefs, taboos and traditional attitudes within communities.

In all of the countries covered by the study there is a particular taboo against women using animals for farm work. Traditionally men are in charge of cattle and horses, and most traction equipment is too heavy for women. Although there is no taboo against the use of donkeys, these animals are considered to be inferior and are rarely used. However, farm experiments carried out using donkeys have had positive results.

The hand hoe is the tool most commonly used for tilling, hoeing and weeding. The blade is usually of the traditional and efficient, rectangular shape, but the handle may vary in shape and especially in length. Indeed many discussions in the groups focused on the length of the handle. The correct length of the handle for a farm implement has become enshrined in people's minds in accordance with their culture, traditional and ethnic group. Short-handled hoes are thought to be more effective and faster for use by women, although they in fact force a woman to bend forwards and, as she is often carrying a child on her back, this increases the strain of her daily workload. When considering this contradiction in the discussion groups, both men and women came up with the near-unanimous response that it is better to work bent over double than to be seen standing, as the latter is considered to be a sign of laziness.

Time devoted to hoeing

  • on a field tilled by hand: 2 to 4 weeks
  • on a field tilled with draught animals: 2 to 4 days

In all five of the countries studied, the technical features of implements may vary according to whether the people are nomadic or sedentary. Significant technical improvements have been made to implements used by nomadic agriculturalists. However, these improvements are likely to be ignored by sedentary populations, since they believe that nomadic people are “lazy”.

The use of marketing techniques in promoting the sale of farm tools and implements in rural areas seems to be a luxury confined to developed consumer societies, and neither small- nor large-scale manufacturers have made much effort to apply these techniques. Nor do they undertake market research with a view to adapting the tools produced to the needs or demands of different customer groups. The shape, the materials used and the weight are therefore standard, whether the tools are to be used by men or women. Thus a woman or child will often have to wait until a husband or father has worn a tool down considerably so that it is light enough for them to use – although this also causes it to be less sturdy and effective.

In West Africa (Burkina Faso and Senegal), in particular, what takes place in public does not mirror what happens in private. For example, although men will praise the work of their wives when they are talking to other men, they will never say a word in front of their wives. While men usually make final decisions about the purchase of tools, they are often made on the basis of free and open discussion at home, where the women may often dominate. However, once a decision has been made by the household to buy a certain tool or instrument, it often happens that the man comes back with a completely different or less suitable tool because he has been swayed by the manufacturer’s arguments or has been unable to defend his original choice.


There is no quick or ideal solution for improving the production tools and instruments used by women farmers in Africa. However, appropriate action can be taken on fundamental issues such as institutional aid, technology, research and development, and training:

What women farmers want from their tools

  • Lightness
  • Sturdiness
  • Effectiveness
  • Durability


FAO. 1997. Rural women and food security: current situation and perspectives. Rome.

IFAD. 1991. IFAD’s Strategies for the economic advancement of poor rural women. Rome, International Fund for Agricultural Development.

IFAD. 1992. The State of Rural Poverty. Rome, International Fund for Agricultural Development.

IFAD. 1996. Household food security: implications for policy and action for rural poverty alleviation and nutrition, Rome, International Fund for Agricultural Development.

IFAD/FAO/FARMESA. 1998. The potential for improving production tools and implements used by women farmers in Africa. A joint IFAD/FAO/FARMESA study. February 1998.

TOOL. 1997. TOOL Workshop on Technology and Development: Strategies for the Integration of Gender, Amsterdam, 5-6 June 1997.

For further information please contact:

Women in Development Service,
Women and Population Division
Sustainable Development Department
and Agricultural Engineering Branch,
Agricultural Support Systems Division
Agriculture Department
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
Viale delle Terme di Caracalla, 00100 Rome, Italy
or visit the FAO Internet sites: or

I/ X2560E/ 1/ 9.99/ 2000

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