Battle to empower women farmers

Traditionally, African women have fed their families through subsistence farming and are the labour mainstay on agricultural land, providing about 70% of farm labour. But the real challenge for Africa’s women farmers is how to turn their activities into businesses that provide sustainable income.

The Southern African Confedera–tion of Agricultural Unions (Sacau) brought together women farmers from its 12 member countries in the Seychelles in May to map out how they could turn their mainly small-scale farms into agribusiness ventures.

The challenges are numerous: there are more obstacles to success than most participants imagined.

Land title

Land ownership emerged as the major challenge for women farmers in Southern Africa. In all the southern Africa countries represented, traditions that prevent women from inheriting land were cited as a major sticking point.

This, said Swaziland small-scale farmer Doreen Hlatshwayo, also means that women are unable to access finance, as they do not have collateral to present to banking institutions.

Without financial support, agribusiness ventures often remain pipe dreams.

Angela Nazombe, owner of Angel Wings — a Malawian company that exports 30 000 metric tonnes of grain a year to countries such as Rwanda, the DRC and Zimbabwe — said the problem for women is that even if they do own land, it is still controlled by male members of the family, who will also want to control the proceeds from agriculture.

“Accessing land is a big problem for women. So what I try to do is to encourage them to farm small and then form co-operatives,” said Nazombe.

Co-operatives may be the way forward. Hlatshwayo said in 2014 she mobilised women in her community to come together and buy fertiliser in bulk.

“We did it [the transportation] by horse and cart to save costs. We bought 520 bags at a discount. It’s cheaper when we come together. But they [the women] have to trust me that I will deliver, and not disappear with their money.”

Liberation of women

Surprisingly, jealousy among women community members was a recurring theme as to why they do not always succeed in agribusiness.

Nazombe says in her experience she has seen that women must “liberate themselves before they are liberated from men”.

The sentiment among the women was that they are denigrated and often accused of witchcraft by fellow women if they start succeeding on their farms.

The African Union has declared 2015 the “Year of Women’s Empowerment”. But Grace Mhango of Women in Agribusiness in the Sub-Sahara Africa Alliance (Wassa) said this would not amount to much as “women cannot be empowered” because of their cultural beliefs, low confidence and low literacy rates. 

She said women are poor not only in terms of lack of resources but are also “time-poor” as there are many other household duties that fall on their shoulders.

Zvanyadza Soroti, representing the Graca Machel Trust, said there are “a lot of good policies” but they are thin on implementation. 

The Maputo Declaration promoted gender mainstreaming and was endorsed by heads of state in 2003. There is also the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP), the brainchild of Comesa (the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa) that encourages member states to dedicate at least 10% of national budgets to women. 

However, the problem with the policies is that they hand over implementation to individual countries, which are not held accountable to their commitments. 

For example CAADP expects member countries to ensure women make a significant contribution to social and economic transformation, but the women at the Sacau conference said it is difficult to engage with their governments or even discover who the CAADP country representative is in their respective countries.

Although the women farmers who met in Seychelles were resolute about “nothing for us without us” —meaning no policies must be crafted in their absence — this is far from the lived reality.

“Some of us are illiterate. So these big policies such as CAADP, we do not know about them, or [how] we are supposed to benefit from them. Its all just political,” said a pineapple farmer at the conference, who asked not to be named.

Another problem women farmers face is discrimination. They complained that the agricultural extension programmes of their respective governments still favour men. The extension officers often require beneficiaries of government programmes to be literate, to be land owners, to have proper storage for crops, and be able to use equipment such as tractors — things the women said they do not possess, or know nothing about.

The odds are highly stacked against women, said South African commercial farmer Tepsy Ntseoane. She said women farmers lack technical skills and have no access to capital and to markets, among many other problems.

Although women farmers are keen to send their “hoes to the museums” — a synonym used by conference attendees for mechanising their farming operations — this is not possible without capital support. 

Educating communities and changing attitudes of governments towards women farmers remains an ongoing battle in what are still, in essence, patriarchal Southern African societies.

Farming is in Mashumba’s blood

Farming is seldom considered a first choice career  — especially after completing a bachelor’s degree and a diploma overseas. 

Ruramiso Mashumba (30) had what most young Zimbabweans her age would consider a golden opportunity to escape the country’s economic collapse. She had managed to complete her tertiary education in Britain and even worked in Europe for two years. But having grown up on a farm her parents bought in Marondera, west of the capital Harare, she decided farming would be her life’s path. Zimbabwe’s farming woes resulting from the chaotic land reform programme in 2000 did not deter her from returning.

Sitting down for an interview at the Southern African Confederation of Agricultural Unions women’s conference held in the Seychelles, Mashumba is in high heels, has eyelash extensions and her hair is done up in a bob style. I can’t help staring at her pastel pink acrylic nails and wondering if she really farms.

As soon as she starts chatting, my stereotypes of what a farmer should look like are embarrassingly challenged. It’s as if she’s read my mind, telling me that the nails and shoes are just “for show”. Usually she’s in “gumboots and farm gear”. A YouTube video shown later at the conference that was shot at her farm proves it.

Starting out on the farm about two-and-a-half years ago, she found the going tough.

“In the beginning, access to finance for irrigation equipment and to set up the business and access to markets was difficult. It was hard in earlier days for people to just take me seriously.” 

That’s not difficult to imagine — she would have been still in her twenties at that time.

Now her operation has grown to 20 seasonal planters and 30 seasonal harvesters per cycle. She grows peas for export to Britain and South Africa. Her section of the farm also sustains a sizeable forest of gum trees. On the rest of the family farm, her father farms tobacco — still a big forex earner for the country.

With expansion, her problems have also grown. She worries about quality. Peas that are exported should not have fingerprints or drops of water — otherwise they are considered spoiled, said Mashumba. So she must be involved, monitoring her product continually to ensure that standards are maintained — otherwise the peas are returned and she sustains a loss.

Meeting these standards clearly requires passion and patience — qualities Mashumba does not lack.

With Zimbabwe’s land reform programme still not concluded, Mashumba says there is hope for her country. “It will depend on people coming back (from the diaspora). It will take time but we are getting there slowly.”

Mashumba’s first name Ruramiso in her native Shona language means “one who makes things right”: that’s exactly what her country needs right now. — Teldah Mawarire

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