Bring women farmers to the food security table

Philippi Children's Centre food tents (David Harrison)

Philippi Children's Centre food tents (David Harrison)

On a lovely spring day this month, I was surprised by what I witnessed at South Africa’s first urban agricultural summit.

Usually when I attend such meetings, I sit in a room full of professional food security experts, many of whom have never set foot on a farm and many of whom are men. Instead, at this convening, I sat with farmers who own and run thriving urban farming enterprises in Johannesburg. What’s more, the majority of people there were successful urban women farmers.

During the course of conversation, I quickly learnt that these women farmers are at the frontline of achieving the food security and nutrition needs of the rising populations of South African cities. Indeed, the government supports them and ensures they are at important national and international meetings so that their voices are heard.

Even though women comprise about 43% of the global agricultural force and produce as much as 90% of the food in African countries, it is uncommon that farmers, especially women farmers, are represented in boardrooms and at conferences.

I am a food security expert and a woman who grew up on a small farm along the Kenyan coast. As an agricultural scientist and a passionate food security and sustainable agricultural development advocate, over the course of the past 10 years I have attended dozens of national and international food security and agricultural development conferences and I have observed over and over the absence of real farmers and women and minorities at these gatherings. 

Their absence is wrong and shameful, especially when so many conferences focus on demographics such as low-income farmers, minorities and women, and yet representatives of those demographics are rarely present to speak for themselves. Often the discourse in conferences and meetings about development problems helps to shape ideas and drive policy, public opinion and resources. Thus it is crucial that every stakeholder, including women farmers, is represented.

Many advantages can come from including them. First, they can tell it as it is. These farmers face the difficulties we try to solve so they are better placed to describe the problems accurately. Getting to hear firsthand issues as told by the farmers themselves rather than assuming or describing their issues allows development experts to design effective and effective solutions.

Second, they can offer ideas and new ways of thinking to solve problems. Failing to include these important clients means we are missing the brainpower and potentially novel ideas that could be game-changing. Think of what could be accomplished if their ideas were included and valued?

Third, including farmers sends a strong message that their ideas matter. And because they see that their ideas matter, they are more likely to implement the proposed solutions and these could result in sustainable practices.

Accurately representing and listening to people doing on-the-ground work for food security should be the norm at conferences and should be replicated in Africa and around the world if we truly want to solve our difficulties in a sustainable manner. Of course, some places are already doing this. The World Food Prize, for example, for the past few years has invited women farmers to participate in its annual prize-giving. The United Nations Climate Change conference invited a Kenyan farmer, Kisilu Muasya, to speak at the COP21 climate change conference.

But more than one or a handful of farmers need to be included.

This does not have to be a big task. The government and extension officers could identify farmers in their countries and these farmers could then be supported to travel to conferences — and to participate in local, national and international gatherings.

We also need to gather and publish data about the representation of women farmers in agriculture and food security conferences so we know and show how inclusive we are.

As the primary food producers, women occupy a unique place in the food and agriculture system. Their voices need to be heard. If we truly want to solve food security issues sustainably, then we must bring women farmers to the table.

Esther Ngumbi is a postdoctoral researcher at Auburn University, a food security fellow with Aspen Institute New Voices and a commitment mentor for agriculture with Clinton Global University Initiative

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