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Monday, July 15, 2024


Empowering Women is Key to Breaking the Devastating Cycle of Poverty & Food Insecurity in sub-Saharan Africa

A farmer from a women-run vegetable cooperative grows cabbages in Sierra Leone. Credit: FAO/Sebastian Liste

Studies consistently show that women have lower rates of agricultural productivity compared to men in the region, but it’s not because they’re less efficient farmers.

Women in sub-Saharan Africa often lead food storage, handling, stocking, processing, and marketing in addition to other household tasks and childcare. Yet they severely lack the resources they need to produce food.

A 2019 United Nations policy brief reports that giving women equal access to agricultural inputs is critical to closing this gender gap in productivity while also raising crop production.

And last year, the 17th Tanzania Economic Update showed that bridging the gap could lift about 80,000 Tanzanians out of poverty every year and boost annual gross domestic product growth by 0.86 percent.

This makes a clear economic case for investing in women, but public policies frequently overlook gender-specific needs and equality issues. Instead, organizations across the region have been stepping up to help break down the barriers that have traditionally held sub-Saharan African women back.

The West and Central Africa Council for Agricultural Research and Development (CORAF), Africa’s largest sub-regional research organization, runs a database of gender-sensitive technologies, ones that are low-cost and labor-saving for women across the region.

It also developed a series of initiatives to provide training in seed production, distribution, storage, and planting techniques for women. These programs are specifically designed with women’s needs and preferences in mind, such as prioritizing drought resistance or early maturity in crops.

This is an important shift. While we’re seeing an increasing number of exciting technologies and innovations tackling the food systems’ biggest challenges, unless these technologies are gender-sensitive—meaning they address the unique needs and challenges faced by women farmers—they will not be effective.

But empowering women means more than just facilitating access to technologies. Women must also be supported to lead the discoveries, inventions, and research of the future.

The West Africa Agriculture Productivity Program (WAAPP), a sub-regional initiative launched by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) with the financial support of the World Bank and collaboration with CORAF, has specifically targeted initiatives for women farmers as well as women researchers.

Since 2008, 3 out of every 10 researchers trained under the WAAPP have been women.

And in just the past few years, more exciting networks are emerging to support women leading agriculture: In 2019, the African Women in Agribusiness Network launched to promote women’s leadership in African agribusiness. In 2020, the International Finance Corporation (IFC) launched the Women in Agribusiness Investment Network to help bridge the gender financing gap.

And in 2021, the African Women in Seed program was created to support women’s participation in the seed sector through training, mentorship, and networking opportunities for women seed entrepreneurs.

Empowering women in the food system is not simply a matter of social justice and equality; sub-Saharan Africa cannot afford to leave women behind.

Nearly a third of the population in sub-Saharan Africa is undernourished. Meanwhile, it’s one of the fastest-growing populations in the world, expected to double by 2050 and dramatically increase demand.

Women are the backbone of communities and the food system at large in sub-Saharan Africa, and the region’s future economic development and environmental sustainability depend on them. While women are now playing a more active role in the food system, we need more women in leadership at all levels.

Rwanda’s female-led parliament, one of the highest proportions of women parliamentarians in the world, has been instrumental in not only advancing women’s rights but promoting economic development and improving governance. We need more of this.

With the resources, recognition, and support they need and deserve, women will lead the region to a more equitable, sustainable, and resilient future.

Sub-Saharan Africa can achieve the transformation it so critically needs, but only if we support women in the food system now.

Danielle Nierenberg is President, Food Tank; Emily Payne is Food Tank researcher.

IPS UN Bureau

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