Interview with Sounkoura Adetonah, Gender Specialist, IITA-Benin on female farmers in sub-Saharan Africa (International Women’s Day 2018)

1. Today is International Women’s Day. How would you assess the role and progress of female farmers in sub-Saharan Africa?

Nowadays, the integration of gender and especially the consideration of women is a very important, and sometimes key aspect, in inclusive agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa. The International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that 78% of women in sub-Saharan Africa are economically active in agriculture, compared to only 64% of men. According to the FAO (1995), women are responsible for more than 50% of agricultural food production in the world and sub-Saharan is no exception. Moreover, women now constitute the majority of smallholder farmers, providing most of the labor and managing most farming activities on a daily basis. Nevertheless, a complex set of rights, obligations, and considerations reflect the social norms, which identify the prescriptions and the division of labor between men and women in agriculture value chains.

2. What has changed despite the strides research institutes have made in introducing various farming techniques and easy to use technologies?

In spite of the strides of research institutes at national and international levels, women often have very limited access to resources, innovations, and to profitable channels. They also have difficulty engaging in more lucrative activities. With limited financial resources, improved technologies are very expensive and not available for them. Since men have more access to information and inputs compared to women, they are more likely to adopt a technology than women.

3. What can be done to improve the lot of the rural farmers?

All social groups must have access to the same opportunities, access to markets for inputs and products. With the introduction of an inclusive funding model, women can have greater access to technology and credit through their organizations. Direct and indirect jobs will be created including those related to services (agricultural advice, use of agricultural machinery, management of cooperatives, brokerage service, information system and insurance) and the empowerment of women will be strengthened.

4. What is your perception of African women farmers?

African women farmers are key contributors to economic growth and global food security, but they still face many challenges. There are significant gender disparities in the way that key resources essential for success in agriculture are distributed across Africa. Access to land, inputs, assets, markets, information and knowledge, time, decision-making authority, and income still present a challenge for women in the sector. The limited access to agricultural extension services prevents many women from adopting the technologies that would help them increase their yields. For example, an estimated yield gap between men and women of 20 to 30% has been observed, and this hinders the growth of the agricultural sector in many developing countries. Also, female farmers receive only 5% of all agricultural extension services, and only 15% of the world’s extension agents are women. In addition, only 10% of total aid received by the agricultural and fisheries sectors goes to women. Women generally use lower levels of technology because of difficulties in access, cultural restrictions on use, or regard for women’s crops and livestock as low research priorities. In terms of the training and education, African women are less educated and trained.

5. What does International Women’s Day (8 March) mean to you and an average woman?

International Women’s Day (IWD) (8 March) is a great day for all women. It is a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women. The campaign theme for this year is #PressforProgress, International Women’s Day is not country, group, or organization specific. It belongs to all groups collectively, everywhere. So together, let’s all be tenacious in accelerating gender parity.

Happy Women’s Day to all women!

Sparing a thought for rural female farmers (International Women’s Day 2018)

by Adebola Adewole

Today is International Women’s Day. March 8 is a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women. The day also marks a call to action for accelerating gender parity. In agriculture, what does gender parity look like? Has there been a significant improvement in the income and lives of rural female farmers? Are they at par with their male counterparts? These questions are germane because the International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that 78% of women in sub-Saharan Africa are economically active in agriculture against 64% of men. According to the FAO, women are responsible for more than 50% of agricultural food production in the world and sub-Saharan Africa. Yet they still occupy the lowest rungs of the economic ladder and are considered the poorest of the poor.

These women are the bedrock of food and nutritional security as farmers, producers, processors, harvesters, weeders, and retailers in many African countries. They produce the bulk of the food eaten in urban centers through subsistence farming. Then what has changed? Maria Ayodele, IITA Pathologist retorted: “Nothing has changed. There has not been any material and financial improvement in the lives of the rural women farmers as they still wallow in abject poverty because of lack of empowerment and capacity building and failure of government and local leadership authority. We simply do not care.”

She explained further: “Go to any community in Oyo State, women still fry gari in huts, with firewood. There may be only one hydraulic press in a community, which the women will queue up to use. Government or the rich people should provide more of such for the people to use. Yet we say we are celebrating women when we have failed to empower them in these communities.”

Due to the global economic recession, African countries now have a renewed interest in making agriculture a substantial source of revenue. They are partnering with various science and development agencies that include research institutions to develop agriculture. They may have contributed marginally to rural women farmers’ improved livelihoods. “Research institutes have never been geared towards infrastructural development of communities but to provide plant materials of improved varieties like cassava, maize, and other crops,” says Ayodele.

In spite of the strides of research institutes at national and international levels, Sounkoura Adetonah, Gender Specialist, IITA Benin says, “Women often have very limited access to resources, innovations, and profitable channels. They also have difficulty engaging in more lucrative activities. With limited financial resources, new technologies are very expensive and not available for them. Men have more access to information and inputs in relation to women. They are more likely to adopt a new technology than women.

Traditions and culture seemingly conspire to undermine the socioeconomic life of the women. In this age and time, women cannot own land in many communities, neither can they rent. They have nothing to increase the acreage of their farm land. Chief among these factors impinging on their material upliftment and improved livelihood according to Ayodele are “Patriarchal society, insensitivity of government, and politicization of agriculture.”

As the world celebrates International Women’s Day with speeches, music, and poetry, some women believe the day is not worth celebrating. This is because a higher percentage of women are suffering and live in poverty, discriminated against, with a lack of gender parity with men. Bussie Maziya-Dixon quips: “What are we celebrating? Rural women farmers are not worth celebrating because of their dire situation. Nothing has changed”.  Ayodele adds, “International Women’s Day celebrates the progress women have made in all fields of endeavor. But as we celebrate this day, we should think about how to empower the rural women, change our attitude and perception of them as they are the bedrock of African agriculture.” This is a day of reflection and self-evaluation for all women in the world and above all women researchers at IITA.

The resilient women of DRC

by Renee Bullock and Bonaventure Munzunghirwa

The Democratic Republic of Congo is often preceded by its reputation of being unsafe, violent, and unstable. Having lived in Bukavu, the capital South Kivu, for over two years, I have seen women and men’s tenacity, resilience, and tremendous warmth, a side of DRC that often does not reach the press. Bukavu is a bustling town of over 1 million. Upon leaving town, one soon sees verdant, rolling green hills stretching for miles (Photo 1).

Picture of Walungu territory
Figure 1. Walungu territory (Photo: Renee Bullock, IITA)

Rural women have witnessed war and loss, yet persevere in the face of hardship. When men went to fight in the Congo War that ended in 2003, many women remained on the farm and took up roles previously reserved for men. After the war, women engaged in collective action and economic activities. Despite women’s vibrant economic activity, their access to productive resources is limited, and even when women earn their own income, they may not independently decide how to use it because of prohibitive gender norms that sanction women and girls’ ownership and control of resources.

The project “Strengthening Livelihood Strategies of Vulnerable Women in the Democratic Republic of the Congo” is a pilot intervention that began in 2017 with the aim of enhancing women’s financial capabilities, which refers to the “attitude, knowledge, skills, and self-efficacy needed to make and exercise money management decisions that best fit the circumstances of one’s life”. The main objective of the project is to support women’s empowerment through improvements in financial capability using a combination of approaches in which entrepreneurial knowledge, skills, and attitude are addressed to support positive behavioral changes in household financial decisions. Although women often engage in business and savings, household relations with spouses may constrain women’s opportunity to decide how to spend their money. Such practices can undermine development objectives to improve gender parity.

Twenty-six women from two villages participate in the project; their ages range from 28 to 65 and 67% of the women project beneficiaries are illiterate. Fourteen of the women are married, and seven are widows. The other women manage households while their husbands migrate in search of work, often in mines. Husbands may not return for years at a time.

The women face many challenges, but they are not insurmountable. To build women’s financial capabilities so that they may empower themselves and press for progress in their lives, the project was designed to build women and men’s capacity and change behavior so women gain greater support in their enterprise and savings activities. Men participated in training and gender dialogue groups (GDGs) were used to discuss decision-making and planning of a household budget, for example. In the 4 months since the project started women formed two groups, started businesses of selling rice, beans, flour, and banana, among others, and are saving in a formal account. For half of the women, this is their first experience of owning a savings account; only 27% of the beneficiaries’ households received credit in the last 2 years. One group named themselves Rhugwasanye, which in the local language Mashi, means “Let’s help each other”. The 14 members saved US$275. In addition, women support each other in social, economic, and health issues (Fig. 2).

Picture of Gulimwentuga Women's group
Figure 2. Gulimwentuga Women’s group (Photo: Renee Bullock, IITA)

Widows generally share their resources and make decisions with influential men in their household, including their sons, or brothers-in-law. But, as Mapendo* said, “I am a widow but I always asked for my children’s advice. Since the training, I put into practice the lessons from the training and I can decide on my own and inform my children.”

Picture of Martha sells banana seedlings
Figure 3. Martha sells banana seedlings (Photo: Renee Bullock, IITA)

Martha[1] is a widow who worked as a banana seed provider until her husband died 5 years ago (Fig. 3). Through the project and the startup capital provided she was able to restart her business. She purchased 1‒2 month-old seedlings from a local banana plantation one day per week and sells to women coming from town. This is her first experience of saving through a formal savings scheme and she has saved a modest $20, which she will use to purchase iron sheets.

Judith* is a widow who also works in the banana value chain (Fig. 4). She buys unripe bananas and ripens them to sell to those who brew beer. This is also her first experience in a savings group. She said, “Before the intervention, I didn’t know the importance of saving.” Both women aspire to increase their sales and the scale of their business.

Picture of Judith sells bananas to brew beer
Figure 4. Judith sells bananas to brew beer (Photo: Renee Bullock, IITA)

Eve* is a married woman who is among the top savers in her group, selling rice and beans. Of her husband who participated in the project’s joint training, she said “There has been improvement because today I bring my share, he brings his share, and we decide jointly. Before, he decided by himself.” Her husband supports her. She explained, “If I save, then his income will be used for other household needs.”

Although the project is relatively new, many lessons have been learnt and there is reason to celebrate the successes of women who are pressing for change. Women are making positive changes in their relationships in their household, within their community, and with their fellow group members. These relations are important to women’s ability to improve their financial capabilities. Relationships affect a woman’s capacity to manage her income, whether for business or for savings. Projects must incorporate holistic approaches to tackle poverty’s most pressing issues, across geographies. Through such interventions and women’s and men’s collective efforts, we can #PressforProgress and attain gender parity.

Note: The project “Strengthening Livelihood Strategies of Vulnerable Women in the Democratic Republic of the Congo” is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

*Not real name

Women’s group in DRC press for economic change

by Renee Bullock, Rosalie Biaba, and Kanigula Mubagwa

This year’s theme for International Women’s Day is #PressforProgress. Women in DRC are now able to press for economic change in their lives and the lives of their families, to transition from poverty to better, healthier livelihoods through a jointly led project that focuses on health and agriculture. This will be the first in a series of blogs that will feature highlights from the project.

The International Center for Advanced Research and Training (ICART) and IITA have partnered in a project titled “Strengthening Livelihood Strategies of Vulnerable Women in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.” The 2-year pilot program began in 2017 and engages 450 women in three peri-urban locations surrounding Kinshasa, DR Congo. The primary aim of the project is to economically empower women who work in the sex trade by enhancing their access to financial, agricultural, and health services.

Logo of International Center for Advanced Research and Training

Financial hardship is a major driver for women’s entry into sex work. This project addresses economic, health, and gender issues through a unique, holistic livelihood approach to better support women’s transition from sex work to alternative income-generating opportunities.

In the project, female sex workers are aged from 20 to 38, and 84% of them are single. Most independently control the income earned (78%). Their average weekly income ranges from US$12 to 200. Most (99%) of the women want to transition out of this work; they want change.

This project supports women and girls’ efforts by improving their access and participation in savings schemes, establishing new social networks, especially collective action through the creation of women’s groups (10‒15 women each); and through the provision of knowledge and skills’ development. To date, the project has provided training sessions on improved agricultural skills and food processing. Peri-urban agriculture and food processing feature as important, alternative income-generating activities in the project. Currently, 1.5 hectares have been planted with cassava that will be processed into flour to prepare baked goods to sell. A group leader in Kimvula (photo below) learned improved techniques to cultivate cassava and vegetables. She depends on agriculture to support her livelihood and plans to one day own her own plot of land to cultivate. In addition, vegetables have been planted on 0.5 ha to improve the nutritional status of women and their families.

Group 4 President in the cassava field, Kimvula
Group 4 President in the cassava field, Kimvula (Photo: Rosalie Biaba Apasa)

IITA Youth Agripreneurs-Kinshasa (IYAKIN) conducted three training sessions that focused on the production of donuts, bread, bread that incorporates high quality cassava flour (HQCF), and soybean milk. Anna*, 28 and mother of one, attended a training on how to prepare donuts. She then began to sell and noted that the income enabled her to pay rent, school fees for her daughter as well as save. She aspires to expand her business and to sell in a better location to increase her profits.

Picture of Anna sells donuts in front of her house
Anna sells donuts in front of her house. (Photo: Rosalie Biaba Apasa)

Savings is a critical aspect of the project and women have been encouraged to save for at least one year. To date women have collectively saved over $1808.

Fifty young women are receiving vocational training in dress making, hair styling, and literacy. Kungwa, aged 19, is an orphan and is raising two children on her own. She has learned to sew through her engagement in the program and is now earning and managing an income that is sufficient to support her and her family. She would like to open a tailoring business.

Picture of Kungwa sews for a living
Kungwa sews for a living (Photo: Rosalie Biaba)

Through this project, women are empowered to press for change, to transition from vulnerable conditions to better livelihoods. More projects that holistically address economic, health, and social aspects are needed to prepare these women for lasting, sustainable change.

Note: The project “Strengthening Livelihood Strategies of Vulnerable Women in the Democratic Republic of the Congo” is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Dream it, work hard, and you will Make it Happen


The tough journeys

“When I went to the United States, to do my Masters, I was the only black person in my class, the only female, and the only foreigner. On top of that I had two small children. It was not easy. However, with determination and hard work, I was able to do exceedingly well in my studies, ” says Dr Mary Mgonja, the Head of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA).

Dr Mary Mgonja, Head of AGRA in Tanzania sharing her journey to becoming a scientist. Next to her is Dr Rose Shayo from the Institute of Development Studies, University of Dar es Salaam.
Dr Mary Mgonja, Head of AGRA in Tanzania sharing her journey to becoming a scientist. Next to her is Dr Rose Shayo from the Institute of Development Studies, University of Dar es Salaam.

Dr Mgonja was sharing her journey on becoming a successful scientist as part of a panel discussion organized to mark this year’s International Women’s Day held at IITA offices in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. The event dubbed “#Make It Happen for Women in Science” was in line with this year’s theme of the day “Make It Happen.”

The panel discussion brought together female researchers in Tanzania working in diverse research fields and at various levels of their career―those starting out and those at their peak to discuss and share their stories, successes, and challenges before an audience of IITA researchers and partners, the media, and aspiring young scientists drawn from surrounding secondary schools.

The panel members: From left, Dr Francesca Nelson, Dr Costancia Rugumaru, Ms Mary Maganga, Dr Rose Shayo, Dr Mary Mgonja and Ms Eddah Mushi.

In addition to Dr Mgonja, the other panelists were Dr Costancia Rugumaru, Dean, Faculty of Science at the University of Dar es Salaam, School of Education; Dr Francesca Nelson, Senior Food Security Specialist, IITA; and Mary Maganga  and Edda Mushi, both Research Supervisors at IITA. The session was facilitated by Dr Rose Shayo, a Senior Lecturer at IDS.

All the panelists shared on the various challenges they had undergone and the lessons they had learned along the way and offered words of encouragement to potential female scientists on the theme that kept repeating itself―hard work.

“In all the places you will work, be yourself, respect your superiors, and do your job well,” said Dr Regina Kapinga who will be joining IITA as Head of Advocacy and Resource Mobilization from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Dr Kapinga shared her journey from a simple village girl to working as a Senior Program Officer with the Gates Foundation.

Dr Kapinga
Dr Kapinga shares on her journey from a simple village girl to an international researcher in Seattle, USA as the facilitator, Dr Dr Rose Shayo looks on.

“One of my biggest challenges was the lack of facilities to study science in my high school. We did not have laboratories and equipment, however, I persevered, did well, and processed to the university to pursue my degree in agronomy. At the university, we were very few students as many women said agronomy was very hard,” added Edda Mushi, on her challenges in school.

Eddah Mushi, a young researchershares on her short but challenging journey to becoming a researcher at IITA
Eddah Mushi, a young researchershares on her short but challenging journey to becoming a researcher at IITA

Dr Franscesca Nelson focused on the importance of tackling existing social conventions which were disadvantageous to women. These included issues such as violence against women and discrimination of women that were deeply rooted in cultural beliefs and social norms.

???????????????????????????????She also noted it was important for female researchers to use their knowledge and skills to find solutions to the challenges faced by poor rural women. For example, developing labor saving equipment and tackling inequalities.

Gender at IITA

Dr Manyong welcoming  the participants
Dr Manyong welcoming the participants

While officially opening the event Dr Victor Manyong, IITA Director for Eastern Africa briefed participants on gender issues at the Institute. He said gender was very important to IITA as an international research organization whose goal was to tackle hunger, poverty, and malnutrition in sub-Saharan Africa.

“We cannot address poverty, hunger, and malnutrition in Africa without understanding and addressing the constraints faced by women farmers who in most communities provide the majority of agricultural labor on the family farm, and process food for markets as well as family consumption.  In some communities, they are not allowed to own land or other agricultural assets and they have no say in any decisions on farm incomes and activities,” he said.

Dr Manyong added, “It’s therefore important to factor these considerations in our research-for-development interventions to ensure they benefit all Africans, women and men alike.”


Science students from near by school listen keenly
A science student from a near by school listens keenly

The students from nearby secondary schools invited to the  event appreciated the opportunity to meet and hear from successful researchers and said  they had been  very inspired.

“We were very happy to meet all these senior successful scientists who have motivated us and showed us that science can be for girls. We do not have many such opportunities and wish there would be more of such forums and even reach out to more girls including those in the rural areas,” said Glory Venance, a form 5 student at Jangwani Secondary School.  “However, in our school similar to what one of the panelists shared, we do not have good facilities and equipment. Therefore even as we are being motivated to take up science, the government should also look into this challenge.”

The event was declared to be successful in many ways and the participants urged IITA and its partner institutions to find ways to organize other such forums to motivate girls to take up science and encourage the young scientists starting their careers.

The event was organized by the IITA in collaboration with AGRA and the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) of the University of Dar es Salaam.