How much labour is done by women in African agriculture: telling fact from myth?

Image courtesy of [africa] at

Image courtesy of [africa] at

What if what we thought to be true about African agriculture was wrong? So often we turn to well used statistics and commonly-held beliefs when we describe the challenges African farmers face: low access to credit and inputs, high post-harvest losses and imperfect markets. We rely on conventional wisdom to characterise agriculture across the whole continent, in part to make up for the lack of sound evidence on which to base our characterisations.

Now a new project entitled “Agriculture in Africa– Telling Facts from Myths” aims to test the validity of common wisdom and update our understanding of farming in Africa. An update desperately needed due to our reliance on outdated knowledge and rapid socio-economic and physical changes happening in Africa. Initiated by the Chief Economist’s Office of the World Bank Africa Region, the project is a collaboration with the African Development Bank, the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, Cornell University, the Food and Agriculture Organization, London School of Economics, Maastricht School of Management, University of Pretoria, University of Rome Tor Vergata, University of Trento, and Yale University.

The commonly accepted wisdoms the project aims to challenge are:

  1. Use of modern inputs remains dismally low
  2. Land, labour and capital markets remain largely incomplete
  3. Land is abundant and land markets are poorly developed
  4. Access to credit is limited
  5. Labour productivity in agriculture is low
  6. Women perform the bulk of Africa’s agricultural tasks
  7. Agroforestry is gaining traction
  8. African agriculture is intensifying
  9. Seasonality continues to permeate rural livelihoods
  10. The majority of rural households are net food buyers
  11. Post harvest losses are large
  12. Droughts dominate Africa’s risk environment
  13. African farmers are increasingly diversifying their incomes
  14. The young are leaving agriculture
  15. Household enterprises operate mainly in survival mode
  16. Agricultural commercialisation improves nutritional outcomes

The project uses data collected under the Living Standards Measurement Study-Integrated Surveys on Agriculture (LSMS-ISA) initiative. These surveys, on both agricultural and non-agricultural facets of people’s lives, have been conducted in Ethiopia, Malawi, Niger, Nigeria, Tanzania, and Uganda from 2008 onwards and participants will be visited four times in total by 2020, and represent 40% of the population of sub-Saharan Africa. Although still in the early phase of the project, initial findings can be found here, for instance post harvest losses are being reported at levels less than figures reported by the FAO on which many publications rely.

Looking to number 6 in the list, one belief is that women contribute a higher share of the labour on farms than men in Africa. It is commonly cited that women’s labour contribution in African farming is between 60 to 80% but is this true? The 2010-2011 State of Food and Agriculture report from the FAO, the theme of which was women in agriculture, was a key publication in shedding light on this gender gap and reported that women make up around 50% of the agricultural labour force in Africa. A paper by Palacios-Lopez et al (2015) calculated that women contribute some 40% of agricultural labour hours to crop production, lower than commonly used estimates. [Read more…]

What we’ve been reading this week

This week’s summary on the news stories, reports and blogs that have grabbed our attention. We welcome your thoughts and comments on these articles.

UN official stresses link between healthy soils, sustainable development as Global Soil Week starts, UN

US Announces Plans to Reduce Agricultural Carbon Emissions, The New York Times

Guest Commentary – Agriculture: The Common Thread Connecting the Sustainable Development Goals, Global Food for Thought

Lifting the lid on the household: A new way to measure individual deprivation, From Poverty to Power

New crop insurance math, new challenges for farmers, Politico

UN urged to demand free access to crop data, SciDev.Net

Fostering Economic Resilience, Greenpeace

Meeting the Global Food Demand of the Future by Engineering Crop Photosynthesis and Yield Potential, Long et al, 2015, Cell

Universities join efforts to combat climate change in East Africa, Daily Monitor

This Earth Day, think agriculture, Plantwise

The genome of cultivated sweet potato contains Agrobacterium T-DNAs with expressed genes: An example of a naturally transgenic food crop, Kyndt et al, 2015, PNAS [Read more…]

Scaling up- scaling up: food security, smallholder farmers & markets


Click here to download the Leaping & Learning Report

October 16th 2014 is World Food Day, and in line with this years International Year of Family Farming, the theme of this World Food Day is “Family Farming: Feeding the world, caring for the earth” aiming to raise the profile of family farming and smallholder farmers. Across Africa, smallholders account for 80% of Africa’s farmland and produce 80% of the food in Asia and Sub Saharan Africa. However due to a lack of suitable infrastructure, access to inputs, technology and storage, the majority of smallholders farmers are not well connected to markets.

After a warm welcome and opening remarks from our very own Katrin Glatzel, and introductions from H.E. Ambassador Neil Briscoe, the UK Permanent Representative to the Rome-based Agencies the panellists shared some of their experiences, successes and challenges from their diverse fields of work.

We heard first from Sharada Keats from the Overseas Development Institute as she provided a comprehensive overview of the key findings and recommendations of the 2013 Leaping & Learning report, sharing that there is no silver bullet for scaling up. Attempts to scale up often do not reach the poorest and most vulnerable and social safety nets must be put in place to ensure that those most in need are adequately supported during the uptake of the project. Thom Sprenger from HarvestPlus supported that reaching the farmers and consumers most affected by micronutrient deficiencies  is a barrier to scaling up and that there is a need to mitigate risks associated with the adoption of a new crop – through credit, insurance, input incentives, and market connections. [Read more…]

Yesterday, today and tomorrow: women, food and poverty

event141016-familyfarmingA series of international days as observed by the United Nations has and is taking place over several days this month.


Yesterday was International Day of Rural Women, the first of which occurred in 2008. The day is about recognising “the critical role and contribution of rural women, including indigenous women, in enhancing agricultural and rural development, improving food security and eradicating rural poverty.”

Rural women are crucial in attaining sustainable rural development but they often face inequalities in terms of access to productive resources, finance, health care and education. Women and girls are also more likely to be undernourished and to go without food despite the central roles they play in a household’s wealth and health. Gender equality and women’s empowerment are not only central to household welfare though but to rural communities, national economic growth and global food security. UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, in her speech on the International Day of Rural Women, highlighted the message that rural women need to be at the heart of all development efforts.

UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon, in his speech marking the occasion, talked about the need to address discrimination and unequal access to resources in the first instance. Rural women often rely on natural resources for their livelihoods. For example, in developing countries, rural women represent approximately 43 per cent of the agricultural labour force. UN Women’s publication Realizing Women’s Rights to Land and Other Productive Resources, published with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), examines the factors affecting women’s rights to land and resources, presenting success stories and future priorities. UN Women also supports several initiatives that promote the leadership of rural women and has partnered with the FAO, International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and the World Food Programme (WFP) for the “Accelerating Progress towards the Economic Empowerment of Rural Women” initiative, which “engages with governments to develop and implement laws that promote equal rights”.

Rural women are key to producing and providing food for their families. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation and Farming First have produced the interactive graphic “The Female Face of Farming”, which shows the role women play in agriculture around the world.


Today is World Food Day and the theme is Family Farming: “Feeding the world, caring for the earth”. This has been chosen to “raise the profile of family farming and smallholder farmers”, a key focus of the UN designated 2014 International Year of Family Farming. Family farms, the main form of agriculture in the food production sector, play a significant role in providing food and managing natural resources and thus contribute to the goals of ending hunger and poverty, protecting the environment and achieving sustainable development. 500 million out of 570 million farms across the globe are family farms, responsible for at least 56% of total agricultural production. This infographic was produced for World Food Day to highlight the critical role of family farmers. [Read more…]

Advocating strategies for agricultural transformation: FAO and AfDB

ID-100207881On the 29th September 2014 two events laid out global and African strategies for agriculture and food security. At its 24th session, the Committee on Agriculture (COAG), one of FAO’s Governing Bodies providing overall guidance on policies relating to agriculture, livestock, food safety, nutrition, rural development and natural resource management, met to discuss a wide range of issues, including family farming and sustainable agriculture.

Opening the event, FAO Director-General José Graziano da Silva, emphasised the broad range of options needed to transform global food systems and that a paradigm shift is needed to make agriculture sustainable. In particular a departure from “an input intensive model”. We need to reduce the use of agricultural inputs such as water and fertilizer and look to new solutions. Such approaches as agroecology, climate-smart agriculture and biotechnology were used as examples of alternatives to the current system but that their use should be based on evidence, science and local context. The FAO’s director-general made the urgency of making agriculture more sustainable for the long term clear, noting that food production needs to grow by 60% by 2050 to meet the demands of a population of 9 billion people.

From some camps the conference was a step in the right direction towards embracing agroecology as too was the recent FAO International Symposium on Agroecology for Food and Nutrition Security. Indeed about 70 scientists and scholars of sustainable agriculture and food systems sent an open letter praising the FAO for convening the event. Seen as both a science and a social movement, agroecology is gaining momentum, now helped by support from the FAO, in particular by their moving away from the one-size-fits-all approach to agriculture and agricultural research and support for the scientific evidence behind agroecology. The letter called for the FAO, its member states and the international community to launch a UN system-wide initiative on agroecology as the main strategy for addressing climate change and building resilience. The letter closes with a hope that the FAO will consider this proposal at the forthcoming Committee on World Food Security meeting on the 13th to 18th October 2014.

Danilo Medina, president of the Dominican Republic, also spoke at COAG 2014 of food as a universal right and of the dire need to transform the rural economy. The Dominican Republic has been particularly successful in reducing hunger from over 34% in 1990 to under 15% today. Since the current government came into power rural poverty has also been reduced 9%, linked to the doubling of the volume of agricultural loans and re-design of loan instruments to benefit smallholders, and the use of surprise visits to farming communities by officials in order to increase understanding and engage with smallholders, in particular around forming cooperatives. As noted by Graziano da Silva, this type of political commitment at the highest levels of government is critical to achieving national food security. [Read more…]

The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2014

SOFI-2014-Cover-300-resizeThe UN Food and Agriculture Organisation’s annual report, The State of Food Insecurity in the World (SOFI) aims to raise awareness about global hunger issues, to identify causes of chronic hunger and malnutrition and to record the progress being made towards reaching global hunger reduction targets.

This year’s report, Strengthening the Enabling Environment to Improve Food Security and Nutrition, provides not only current estimates of undernourishment around the world and progress towards the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) and World Food Summit (WFS) hunger targets but also presents the experiences of seven countries (Bolivia, Brazil, Haiti, Indonesia, Madagascar, Malawi and Yemen) in developing an enabling environment for food security and nutrition.

As the report states, 805 million people, or 1 in 9, are estimated to be chronically undernourished in 2012–14. This is a reduction of over 100 million people over the last decade and 209 million fewer than in 1990-1992. In the last two decades, the prevalence of undernourishment has dropped from 18.7% to 11.3 % globally and from 23.4% to 13.5% in developing countries alone. Latter figures show progress towards the MDG of reducing the proportion of people suffering hunger by half is within reach but in terms of the WFS target of halving the number of people chronically hungry, we are still a long way off.

Progress towards these targets is uneven geographically with only Latin America and South Eastern Asia having reached the WFS target. The highest numbers of hungry people live in Asia while the highest proportions live in sub-Saharan Africa, a region that is seeing relatively low levels of progress in tackling hunger.

The report also explores a range of indicators of hunger that try to encompass the multiple components of food insecurity, namely:

Availability or the quantity, quality and diversity of food. Indicators include the average protein supply and the average supply of animal-source proteins.

Access or physical access and infrastructure. Indicators include railway and road density and economic access, represented by domestic food price index.

Stability or the exposure to food security risk and the incidence of shocks. Indicators include cereal dependency ratio, the area under irrigation, domestic food price volatility and fluctuations in domestic food supply.

Utilization or the ability to utilize food and outcomes of poor food utilization. Indicators include access to water and sanitation and wasting, stunting and underweight measures for children under five years old.

Results from this wide range of indicators show that food availability in still a problem in poorer regions such as sub-Saharan Africa. Access has improved considerably in many places largely where economic growth, rural infrastructure development, social protection programmes and poverty reduction have occurred. Utilisation is identified as the largest challenge for food security and levels of stunting, wasting and malnutrition in children remain high. Stability is also challenge particularly in regions that are heavily dependent on international food markets for domestic supplies and have limited natural resources with which to produce food such as the Middle East and North Africa. The report summarises that “the greatest food security challenges overall remain in sub-Saharan Africa, which has seen particularly slow progress in improving access to food, with sluggish income growth, high poverty rates and poor infrastructure, which hampers physical and distributional access”. [Read more…]

Constraints to smallholder commercialisation

ID-100136355In the wake of the 2008 food price crisis, which exacerbated food insecurity and increased smallholder farmers’ vulnerability to shocks and stresses, recognition of the barriers smallholders face in becoming more productive and developing their farms as commercial businesses has been growing. In 2010, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation implemented the Multidisciplinary Fund (MDF) project to help develop policies supportive of smallholder commercialisation in Africa, in particular identifying the heterogeneity amongst smallholders in terms of their attitudes to commercialisation.

A new report, Understanding smallholder farmer attitudes to commercialisation – the case of maize in Kenya, by the FAO, focuses on maize producers and rural youth in Kenya by investigating “attitudes, strategies and opportunities related to maize commercialisation” in Meru and Bungoma regions in the country. The report is based on key informant interview, focus group, farmer survey and stakeholder workshop data.

At present farm management is not undertaken with commercial prospects in mind for a variety of reasons – continued reliance on maize production for household consumption and a level of mistrust in markets; production and marketing activities remaining distinct from one another; reactive rather than planned production decision-making processes; poor storage facilities; and low maize quality. That is not to say that there aren’t farmers who do think more commercially but in particular farmers are more likely to require direct payments immediately to meet their household needs rather than selling at times or to traders that might allow them to obtain higher payments for their maize. Net buyers of maize, numbering some 45% of the smallholder farmers surveyed, are found to make more objective business decisions, again likely related to the level of urgent cash needs of poorer households and net buyers of maize. One of the main concerns in finding an outlet to sell maize are the transaction costs and the risks associated with the transaction, most farmers aiming to minimise costs and risks. Those smallholders engaged in more commercial practices, in particular selling maize to more distant traders or modern market channels, were more likely to experience a lack of nearby market opportunities, to specialise in maize, to have access to better price information and to have benefited from government input support programmes.

Given the relatively small amounts of maize sold by most farmers, collective marketing whereby maize is pooled and sold in bulk (and inputs can be bought in bulk) could be beneficial but it was found to be unlikely that net buyers would become net sellers of maize purely through collective marketing. Greater institutional support to partner these collective marketing approaches and a business oriented approach may aid their effectiveness. [Read more…]


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