Why are male farmers out-performing women in Africa?

Tanzanian farmers
Gates Foundation

The gap between men and women in some African countries is easily seen in agriculture. Male-managed farm plots consistently out-perform those of their female counterparts by as much as 66% in Niger and 25% in Malawi.

The long-held belief was that a lack of access to the necessary inputs (seed, fertilizer, labor) to make a farm successful were less available to women. That is the case to some extent, but there are more ways that women are put at a disadvantage as to their male counterparts.

“Despite the centrality of agriculture in the economies of most African nations, relatively little is known about why farms managed by women are on average less productive. This “knowledge gap” in turn translates into a “policy gap” in the steps that African governments, their development partners, business leaders and civil society can take to equalize opportunities for female and male farmers,” writes Makhtar Diop, Vice President for the Africa Region for the World Bank.

In fact, equal access to inputs does not necessarily mean that men and women will have the same levels of agricultural productivity. Doip’s comments come as a part of a joint-report on gender and agriculture led by Michael O’Sullivan from the World Bank and Arathi Rao from the ONE Campaign. A closer look at six African countries that are responsible for more than 40% of the population in Sub-Saharan Africa helps to make sense what is happening.

Data collected by the gender innovation lab of the World Bank’s Africa region analyzes household surveys from 2010 to 2013. The report picks up on the trends from this data and compares the findings between countries. What emerges from the report is not only greater clarity on what is needed to support female farmers in Africa, but the awareness that there are in fact significant differences from one country to the next.

“What the research makes clear is that a simple strategy of making sure women farmers have access to the same level of inputs as their male counterparts won’t erase the significant gender gap in farm productivity documented all over Africa. Some creative policy-making will be needed,” blogged Francisco Toro in analyzing the report.

productivity gaps

The ten policy priorities described in the report include recommendations to improve land rights for women, help women farmers gain more access to labor and markets, and better access to information that will help improve their farm work. Potential gains are significant. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that women farmers in Africa could see yields increase by between 20% and 30%. That improvement could then mean as many as 150 million people would no longer go hungry, estimates the UN agency.

Labor turns out to be one of the most significant challenges. The report shows that women-led farms tend to live in smaller households than male-led farms. Factors such as a passed spouse, divorce and migration are all possibly behind the gap. Nevertheless, fewer people who can work on the farm makes it much harder to reach the full potential of the farm. In Malawi, Niger, southern Nigeria and Tanzania there are fewer male workers to support female-led farms and those that do are less productive than the men who help male-led farms.

Then there is the fact that women are responsible for caring for children, a task that becomes harder when also in charge of the family farm. However, there is little being done to address the problem. Fortunately, solutions to some of these problems exist. One of the key components of agriculture programs like the One Acre Fund encourage farming groups to work together on member farms.

However, the programming that is meant to help inform farmers tends to benefit men more than women. The report suggests a few possible reasons for the cause including the fact that women may not be able to fully participate in agriculture education due to other obligations, like childcare, or programs are designed to best fit men, at the expense of women. Starting at the bottom with better education opportunities is one important step. Governments should also tailor information programs for women, in order to improve their impact.

“It is a real injustice to Africa’s women farmers and their families that women make up nearly half of the labor force in agriculture but, on average, produce less per hectare than men,” says ONE Campaign’s Africa Director, Sipho Moyo, in the report introduction. “If governments and partners invest in agriculture and, in particular, its women farmers today, they can be assured of a legacy of greater equality and boundless opportunity that will benefit Africans for generations to come and just may usher the beginning of the end of aid dependence for our people.”

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.