Family farming in Africa: lessons in closing the gender gap

Closing the gender gap is not only the right thing to do; it is the smart thing to do for improved agriculture and food security for all. This was a key message among several discussed at the recent High Level Side Event on "Family farming interventions t



The Side Event was held at FAO headquarters on 17 October 2014, during the 41st Session of the Committee on World Food Security (CFS). As moderator, Ndisale Brave, Deputy Director of FAO's Social Protection Division, suggested areas of discussion for panelists from government, civil society, academia and the private sector. The panelists shared experiences on effective interventions in family farming that have helped empower women and address gender inequalities in Africa, offering specific recommendations for policies and actions to close the gender gap and strengthen family farming. 

In his opening remarks, FAO Director-General José Graziano da Silva expressed the challenge in a few words: How can we make economic growth benefit rural areas – where most of the world's poor and food-insecure are concentrated – and in particular, how can we make sure it benefits those who are most vulnerable – women and youth? 

Among the first to speak was H.E. Amadou Allahoury Diallo, High Commissioner of the 3N Initiative in Niger – "Nigeriens Nourrissent Nigeriens" – a program designed and owned by the people of Niger, in which family farming plays a central role. Mr Diallo noted the importance of gender as a cross-cutting issue for the 3N Initiative, both in terms of the initiative's core principles and in terms of specific actions identified by the initiative for adoption by national projects and programs. 

Agriculture is the key sector

Next on the panel was Haladou Salha, AU-NEPAD Senior Technical Advisor to the Rome-based African Ambassadors and Senior Liaison Officer to the Rome-based UN Agencies. Mr Salha provided an overview of the current context for agricultural policy in Africa, particularly with regard to the 2014 African Year of Agriculture, the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP) and the Maputo Declaration. Key goals include committing at least 10 percent of national budgetary resources to agriculture, ending hunger in Africa by 2025 (Hunger-Free Africa 2025), and halving the level poverty in agriculture across the continent. He stressed that "such programs must target the poor, hungry and malnourished – typically children, women, female-headed households, youth, smallholders, pastoralists and peri-urban people." 

"Agriculture is the key sector for the economic development of Africa," Mr Salha noted, adding later that women are "the leaders of the agriculture sector." 

You don't have to speak for them 

Dr Thelma Awori, Founding Chair and President of the Sirleaf Market Women’s Fund, Liberia, stressed the importance of gender mainstreaming in national economic policies and ensuring political will. She described how Liberia's market women have gained social and political status, and are able to influence policy not only at country-level but in regional and international fora as well. "The market women went to the AU and they made sure that in the new "Agenda 2063", the hand hoe must go, must be a thing of the past, relegated to the museum, and women must have mechanized ways of producing," she said. "You don't have to speak for them, they can speak for themselves."

Instead of business as usual – "business unusual"

Jonathan Jacobs, Joint Founder and Managing Director of Malawi Mangoes, Malawi's first commercial fruit processing operation, spoke next, and explained his company's approach to "business unusual" – where the focus is not on maximizing profits, but on maximizing value: "I'm required – to develop a successful business – to deliver value to my shareholders, my employees, my customers, and my supply chain." In describing a new initiative to ensure that all employees receive adequate nutrition in addition to a staple food diet, Mr Jacobs noted that the main target audience is women –especially expectant and new mothers –firstly because they are "most at risk in our geography from nutrient deficiency," but also because "women are, inarguably, the champions and the leaders in the family, of nutrition."

"For too long, in the private and the public sector, we've asked people to make a choice between private and public. We've asked people to make a choice between nutrition and economics. At Malawi Mangoes and increasingly a group of others, we don't believe that those are the correct choices. Healthy people eating nutritious balanced diets are going to be able to earn a better living for them and their families.  And people who earn a better living for them and their families are going to be able to afford a better, more balanced diet."

It's all linked

Beatrice Gakuba, Founder and CEO of Rwanda Flora, echoed earlier comments on the importance of political will and strong leadership in empowering women and closing the gender gap in agriculture. But in listing some of Rwanda's recent successes in this context –the number of women in Rwandan parliament, women's right to own land, and family protection – she stressed that "it's all linked." "You have to have an integrated approach whether you are from the private sector or the public sector to address this," she explained, adding that "if the basics are not there, nothing will happen." 

Ms Gakuba also called on FAO to act as an "objective broker between the private sector and the public sector" and enable strong partnership between the two, thereby ensuring that policies and strategies translate into action on the ground. "We have to stop talking and start doing," she said.

Paying the farmer (and not the doctor)

Nompumelelo Mqwebu, Head Chef of Africa Meets Europe Cuisine, spoke of working with women farmers – as well as women who run daycare centers, orphanages and homesteads – in the KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa.  The organization trains the women in creating nutritious dishes from what's on hand or from indigenous foods, in making healthy meals and lunchboxes for children and families, and in adding value to their produce through processing, preserving and pickling techniques. 

The women farmers also learn to organize and run their own market days, instead of depending solely on the markets set up by the government and others. In targeting nearby restaurants, hotels or guesthouses, they cultivate a base of customers who then know the farmers are nearby and can source from them on a regular basis. 

Ms Mqwebu noted that by selling directly to customers in this manner, the women can sell their produce at better prices than when they sell to supermarkets. "[The] supermarkets actually tell them what price they are going to buy at, whereas [at these market days] the people buy [directly] from the women and don't find a reason to negotiate," she explained. "They're buying organic food and they know it has been harvested on that very same day… The price is cheaper than the supermarkets so they're getting the most nutrients at a very good price. So women also realize more profits from that."

"We pay the doctor to make us better when we should really be paying the farmer to keep us healthy." (Robyn O’Brien)

The full and active participation of women

Ibrahim Coulibaly, President of the National Confederation of Farmers' Organizations of Mali and International Year of Family Farming Special Ambassador for Africa shared his experiences as a first-hand actor and witness in Mali's own process to design the country's first agricultural policy: "We brought many stakeholders together and during all of the consultations we said that we could not hold the consultation [without] at least 30% [representation from] women." He added that "there were some consultations where we had more women than men involved, so all issues were debated with the full and active participation of women."

"I learned that in order to ensure that the fight for gender equality moves forward, women need to be involved directly. And when I say women I'm talking of rural women. Many people talk on behalf of rural women but they can't really represent the interests of rural women. No one can defend rural women on their behalf; they need to do it themselves."

Mr Coulibaly also touched on the issue of land governance (for both men and women), and of recognizing the importance of economic empowerment as a key tool in achieving gender equality. "When [women] have operations under their own control to produce their own income, they wield greater clout in negotiations," he explained.

We cannot leave young people out

Gladwell Wambui Kahara, Kenya Youth Representative to the United Nations, listed many of the challenges and issues related to encouraging and involving young people in agriculture and rural life, such as rural-to-urban migration, the need for better access to land, credit and markets and for youth, and the need to reflect agriculture and farming as a choice for young people in national education systems. Citing the National Youth Policy of Ghana and the Kenyan Government's recent directive allocating 30% of all public tenders to youth, women and persons with disabilities, she also stressed the need to involve and engage young people in policy and decision making processes and – ultimately – in real action and implementation on the ground.

"I will finish with this short story: Once an American president called all the scientists he had and told them, 'Go all over the world and come back and tell me what it takes to go to the moon.' The scientists went out and did all the research they could and when they came back they said, 'Mr President, do you want to know what you need to go to the moon?' The President said, 'Yes, go ahead.' And the scientists told him, 'You need only one thing to go to the moon – the will to go to the moon. And when you have the will, you can go to the moon.' So this is my challenge to each one of us: when we have the will, we will make a difference."

Rooted in culture

Dr Olubunmi Ashimolowo, Senior Lecturer at the Federal University of Agriculture in Nigeria confirmed that – when it comes to academic institutions in Africa working to close the gender gap – "all hands are on deck". All institutions are being encouraged  to "have a school of gender" and to define gender policies for mainstreaming gender in both "staff recruitment and in student admissions". Research and partnership with other organizations is also important, as is the need for professors themselves to "introduce gender perspectives into their lectures". In terms of recommendations, Dr Ashimolowo stressed the need for improved technologies that are gender specific or "gender-friendly" and the need for more women to hold management positions in academia: "The gender gap is rooted in our culture – in a lack of decision-making power for women."

"When you educate the man, you educate an individual. But when you educate the woman, you educate the nation."

Marcela Villarreal, Director of FAO's Office for Partnerships, Advocacy and Capacity Development (OPC), provided closing remarks that echoed many of the key messages and points discussed, reiterating above all the importance of working together: "Let us not work alone; it is not alone that we can solve the problem of food insecurity, our Director-General says, it's societies who decide to eliminate hunger."