I have long held a passion for improving the state of agricultural production in Africa, particularly with a focus on helping women. Two-thirds of Africans – including 90 percent of sub-Saharan Africa’s extreme poor – rely on agriculture for their incomes. Two of the most powerful ways to reduce poverty in Africa include making improvements to agricultural production and finding ways to help farmers to access markets for cash crops.
A recent study conducted by The World Bank and One Campaign, Levelling the Field: Improving Opportunities for Women Farmers in Africa, lays out a clear business case for improving the productivity of African women farmers, presents the underlying causes for their lower productivity levels than their male counterparts, and makes recommendations for governments to help bridge the gap between the productivity of men and women farmers. While governments are the intended audience for the results of the study, the global cotton industry can also benefit from finding ways to help women become more productive farmers. The industry should consider the study’s findings and work within their capacity to implement some of the recommendations.
The study uses surveys containing information collected at the farm manager level in six countries (Ethiopia, Niger, Nigeria, Malawi, Tanzania and Uganda), which comprise 40 percent of the population of sub-Saharan Africa. The study defines agricultural productivity as “the average value of agricultural output produced per hectare or acre of land.” It also defines women farmers as “women who have decision-making power over an arable plot (or plots) of land and/or the resulting harvest.” The research methodology is also presented in the report.
I’d like to present the key underlying causes that hinder women’s productivity and the recommended interventions that I believe are most relevant to the cotton industry:
- Labor is a key driver in women’s lower agricultural productivity. Two reasons for this are: 1) women tend to assume a large role in childcare and household duties, leaving less time to tend to the farm, and 2) male laborers tend to be more productive for male farmers when compared to women farmers. Making childcare available in farming communities and improving women’s access to quality hired labor – through more available financing and greater assistance in finding labor – could provide positive results.
- Women farmers use less – and lower quality – fertilizer and other inputs, which can have a significant impact. This practice is due to limited knowledge on how to identify and use quality fertilizers as well as to the fact that certified inputs are only available in larger quantities than women farmers need, deterring them from purchasing any. Financial constraints also prevent women farmers from buying sufficient amounts of fertilizer at the beginning of the season. Certifying smaller bags of fertilizer and inputs, especially in sizes appropriate for the small plots that women typically farm, combined with helping women to identify and finance the purchase of quality seeds and inputs, are two interventions that hold great potential in improving productivity.
- Rural women are often disadvantaged because they are not able to control land, and that limits their investments on the farm, which, in turn, lowers productivity. Women’s land rights should be strengthened, or already existing or future tenures should be implemented, to provide more long-term security.
- Existing extension services and dissemination of information are less accessible and effective at improving productivity among women than they are among men. Extension service providers should tailor their efforts to women’s needs to ensure that the women farmers receive practical and technical guidance on better farming practices. Two ways in which industry could help build capacity among women famers would be to leverage social networks and to bring the trainings to the farmer – who may be less inclined to travel due to childcare and household duties – through local farmer field schools or mobile phone applications.
- Women’s limited production of high-value crops restricts their profitability. Women tend to favor crops that do not require the upfront capital investments (e.g. seeds, fertilizers, hired labor) that many cash crops require. However, avoiding these higher value crops limits their profitability potential.
- Women have less access to markets for their products. Market information and access can be improved through information and communications technology and through coordinating connections (e.g. shared transportation to market, training through social groups) between farmers and buyers.
Improving productivity and profitability of women farmers in Africa holds great potential to alleviate poverty. Steps that can be taken are outlined in the report and should be considered. I believe the cotton industry could take a leading role in supporting women farmers and would benefit from doing so.
Can the cotton industry effectively implement the above-recommended interventions? If so, which would be most feasible and effective?
Should the cotton industry do so in partnership with governments, or should they do so independently?