Women could feed the world - if we let them

Doreen Hlatjwayo

Doreen Hlatjwayo

“We have life and we have power.” This confident assertion was made in the prayer that opened the first ever official gathering of women farmers in the Southern African Development Community.

The group, numbering some 40 women, travelled from as far afield as the Seychelles and Tanzania to Pretoria to attend the meeting convened by the Southern African Confederation of Agricultural Unions (Sacau), a grouping of national farmers’ unions in 12 countries that was established in 1992.

The timing could not have been more appropriate: the African Union has declared 2014 to be the year of agriculture and food security.

The assurance expressed in the prayer matched the palpable confidence of the women, and their awareness of their critical role: around the world, women produce more than half the food we eat.

In Southern Africa, women make up 60% of small farmers, provide 70% of the workforce for cash-crop farmers, and comprise between 80% and 90% of the labour for subsistence farming, according to a 2004 study of women’s land tenure and rights in the region by Gladys Mutangadura.

The women farmers gathered in Pretoria affirmed their position not just as entrepreneurs, but also as the backbone of food security in the region. As delegate after delegate introduced herself, the message was repeated: we have a duty to ensure that our countries are food-secure.

Each woman mentioned how many children she had and some of them, such as Juliana Ngandu of the Zambia National Farmers Union, explicitly linked their role as mothers and nurturers of children with their role as farmers and feeders of their nations.

Being women farmers, for this group at least, was clearly a personal decision. When the delegates were asked how many had gone straight from school into farming, only six raised their hands. The rest had all followed another career path before changing lanes.

Doreen Hlatjwako from Swaziland went to college and then started working, in time becoming a financial accountant for the United Nations and “doing very well”. But she continued to help with the planting and harvesting at her mother’s farm during her holidays.

It was her mother who inculcated in her a love of farming: “When I was very young, following my mother as she was weeding and planting, I envied her, and that passion got into me.”

Her interest grew over time. “I thought I’d be better off in the fields than at work.” In 2000 she took a voluntary retirement package and went home to Shiselweni. She used her package to build a piggery and fence her three hectares of land.

Land and funding

That convenient input of funds helped Hlatjwako to overcome one of the most difficult obstacles women farmers face: limited access to funding.

Women may produce more than 50% of the world’s food, but they do so despite having to overcome hurdles that are not encountered by their male counterparts. Those obstacles result in an unpleasant truth: on average, according to a 2014 World Bank report, women farmers produce less per hectare than their male counterparts; in Malawi, the figure is 25% less, and in another country covered in the report, Niger, it is as high as 66% less.

Delegates to the Sacau conference all agreed that funding is a key impediment to entering the sector. This includes funding for inputs such as seed and fertiliser, funding for equipment such as tractors and packaging equipment - even something as basic as a cow or horse to pull a plough can be beyond a woman farmer’s means.

Yet when she heads to the bank for help, she is asked for collateral. And collateral means title deeds, a big ask for many across the continent. Some simply don’t have formal proof of ownership, but for many others land ownership laws and customs stand between a woman and ownership of land.

In Lesotho, for example, a 2010 Act abolishing marital power sought to ensure women’s access to land, yet “despite developments in the legal reforms, knowledge and enforcement of laws have not yet translated or elevated women’s status in terms of enjoying land as a productive and economic resource”, according to the Beijing Platform for Action +20 report, published in July.

Access to plots of land is another huge obstacle for women. Few have the ability to save capital to buy land, and land passes by inheritance from father to son, not to daughters. Women in customary marriages often have few or no rights to land. “In many countries, women’s relationship with land is directly linked to their relationship with men. They are viewed as dependent mothers, wives or daughters.”

Therefore, as Farm Radio Weekly reported earlier this year, a woman who attempts to stake a formal land claim risks alienating male relatives.

“This can undermine her position in her family and community. When widows and divorcees are not in possession of a legal deed of ownership, they can find themselves in a precarious state.”

Even where the path to land ownership has been cleared, other obstacles may appear. In Namibia, a woman older than 18 may get 20 hectares from the state, but Yvonne Howaes of the Namibian National Farmers Union complained that farming is all but impossible for many women taking up such land, because of elephant incursions.

Transport and markets

Given equal access to productive resources, from land and farming inputs to adequate fencing against wild animals, women farmers across the globe could increase farm yields by up to 30%, and that would mean 150?million fewer hungry people, according to the World Bank report.

Dorica Amosse Nota, from Tete province in Mozambique, faces enormous - and classic - obstacles, but also represents the huge opportunity for food security embodied in women farmers.

A mother of eight children (of whom four have died), she says: “I’m a very, very small farmer.” Her farm is 80km from the nearest town and, like many women farmers, she has no transport; access to a market for her produce therefore becomes an obstacle to making a profit or expanding her operation.

Although her local farming organisation helps by using its bakkie to take her crops to market, she produces so much that often it is left to rot in the fields. When people drive in from the town, they can set their own price, as she’ll accept whatever is offered for the sweet potatoes, tomatoes, cabbage, maize and potatoes that her land yields so abundantly.

Fix the obstacle of transport and Nota would be able to feed many more people; clear the way for her to get equipment - currently she farms with a hoe, having no money even for an animal to pull a plough - and who knows what she could achieve.

Diane Sibanda, who farms at Lentsweletau, 42km west of Gaborone in Botswana, is evidence of what can be achieved at the other end of the scale. With a marketing background as the national sales manager for Air Botswana and British Airways, Sibanda’s desire to farm grew from her backyard vegetable garden.

In 2007 she began farming on two hectares of land; now she has 30. She grows under shade cloth and in five tunnels, producing tomatoes, onions, beetroot, spinach, cabbage, carrots, brinjals, parsley and sweet peppers for the upper end of the market.

“There’s nothing that men can do that women cannot,” says Louisa Campbell of the Namibian Agricultural Union, a livestock farmer who is raising her daughters to follow in her footsteps.

Sibanda plainly takes gleeful pride in taking that one step further: having identified a niche (Botswana imports 90% of its horticultural products) she has, in just a few years, exceeded the performance of many male farmers, earning a number of awards in the process.

Sibanda found her niche waiting for her. Another delegate, Feddy Tesha from Tanzania, has had to work at creating a niche. Her passion is for dairy, but Tanzanians only drink about a quarter of the milk recommended by the World Health Organisation for daily consumption, so she uses excellent, well-presented products to squeeze out a bit more space for dairy in the market.

Sibanda invested her savings in the farm and has ploughed back profits into improvements, especially the expensive tunnels, which she sees as essential.

She says the tunnels produce 40 tonnes of produce each, a harvest she would be very unlikely to achieve on open land. In fact, she says, with Botswana’s worsening temperature extremes, there’s no other way to go.

Many delegates spoke of changing weather patterns as a threat to their farms; higher temperatures, droughts or floods have repeatedly wiped out crops. Denise Rabebindrahasy, who hails from Madagascar and farms 800km from the capital Antananarivo, is just one example: she says the cycle of floods and droughts has forced her to switch from rice to livestock.

Sibanda has had to “bulldoze” her way (she says this so often that it became a signature word that predictably raised a laugh from the room) on to the shelves of top supermarkets, and has used her invaluable career and life experience to do so.

Assertiveness and experience

Angela Nazombe from Malawi also capitalised on experience and her personal assertiveness to make a success of large-scale farming. “I had to knock on many, many doors,” she says. “I got chased away many times.”

She grew up in a farming family, but started out trading agricultural commodities. “Then I saw the opportunity; the demand for agricultural products was high and our country needed forex. I said: Why not go into big commercial farming, but producing for export?”

She used her savings from commodities trading to fund her initial purchase of a farm. Then, as she acquired contracts to grow specific crops such as cotton, she used upfront payments in dollars to fund further purchases.

Nazombe comes from a tribe in which women are the landowners, and that perhaps boosted her confidence. Many women, she says, are afraid to take the risk and if they do they meet with top-level decisionmakers (always men) whose first comment is to tell them they can’t do it.

“If you are not strong enough, you don’t do it. We are underestimated before we go into action.” She urges women to join farmers’ unions. “They are very, very helpful; they open doors for you, and you will find people who can push you forward.”

This would also help to increase women’s presence in the organisations; only a few have anything like equal representation and the Agricultural Council of Tanzania, with Janet Bitegeko as its executive director, is rare indeed.

The willingness to sacrifice and the absolute purpose displayed by women in the grip of a desire to farm are also determining factors. Doreen Mwanza, from the Zambia National Farmers Union, was working in a bank when she decided to yield to her yearning.

In 2006, she left her job and relocated with her family to an empty stretch of land - she and her husband, who commuted to his banking job, slept in a tent and the rest of the family in temporary mud shelters.

From this tiny beginning, Mwanza has taken steady but hard-won steps towards her goal, including small “wins” such as the acquisition of two oxen for animal power. Today, she has a thriving livestock and dairy business, and supplies quail to game lodges as well as supermarkets.

Mwanza can speak with authority about what women farmers need: aside from access to land and to finance for farming inputs, she mentions access to training or even just information about agriculture and about improved farming methods.

She says there’s a dearth of extension services for women farmers, something that has been repeatedly noted over the years: “Extension services provide information, training, advice and technical support to farmers to help them improve productivity and farming methods.

“’Women farmers make up a big percentage of agriculture production, especially in Africa. However, there are only a few female extension officers in the field,’ says Global Forum for Rural Advisory Services executive secretary Kristin Davis. An IPS news service report from 2012 noted that extension services have to take into account the sometimes special situation of women farmers when it comes to raising a family and land ownership. It is unfortunate, the report said, that most extension services mainly work with male farmers because development policies incorrectly tend to assume that farmers are men.

It’s to be hoped that this historic first meeting of women farmers in sub-Saharan Africa will result in sufficient clout and leverage to empower women in farming, to begin to dissolve the obstacles to their success, and to position them front and centre in all discussions about national and international policy on agriculture.

This article forms part of a series presented in partnership with the Southern Africa Trust. The series looks at key development issues in the SADC region