In Nganda, a remote area in Senegal close to the Gambian border, restaurant owner Aissatou Tisse is carving out a reputation for tasty homemade, locally grown food.
About 100km away in the village of Niakhar, handicapped Daba Dione feeds her family by raising chickens on a modest smallholding. Thanks to a training course in veterinary health, she is routinely consulted by neighbours about their own poultry.
“Today, I have even forgotten the difficulties of the past,” Dione said.
The two have benefited from schemes that seek both to support women’s empowerment and fight poverty in parts of rural Africa.
Khadija Doucoure, who works on gender and youth issues in West Africa for the International Fund for Agricultural Development (Ifad): “We have an enormous need of women. We’re up against the ageing of those who hold land and the phenomenon of migration among men.
“It should be normal for them [women] to have access, like men do, to financial resources, fertilisers, and to be present in decision-making bodies for product marketing.”
United Nations agencies such as Ifad and the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) manage projects to help rural women, who account for at least 43% of agricultural labourers worldwide, according to an FAO report.
These women are also responsible for childcare and household tasks but have “limited access to land, credit, information and technologies”, Ifad said in a recent report.
In West and Central Africa, Ifad runs 55 projects that feature gender equality as a goal. Between 2010 and 2015, its projects “reached a total of 139-million people, of whom 43.2-million saw an increase in farm income”, and others built up larger cattle herds or poultry stocks. The support “lifted 24-million people out of poverty”, according to the agency, which said that helping women is “an efficient means of reducing chronic infantile malnutrition.”
Nevertheless, independent analyst Jean-Christophe Debar warned of broader risks if institutional donors such as the FAO and the World Bank concentrate unduly on women because of perceived hardships.
“I’m worried about trendy effects. What we need most is a rural economy that works for everyone,” said Debar, head of the think-tank foundation FARM. “We should not give the impression that it’s enough to focus on women for everything to go well.
“The two main problems in Africa are access to the means of production [land, seeds and fertiliser] and access to the market, with the possibility of selling the harvest at a rewarding price.”
In Nganda, where some families cannot afford all the food they need, Ifad has financed farm support programmes jointly with the Senegalese state since 2012. Villagers are given seeds adapted to survive in drought conditions and also get basic agronomic training in soil management.
Tisse works only with local produce, she told AFP in her small Nganda restaurant where she provided a glass of ruby-red bissap, a popular drink made from dried hibiscus petals.
“We have been able to buy our sheep and horses and we have launched into the production of [groundnut] oil,” said the young woman, who was forced to leave school early after her parents died.
Until the funding scheme began, “we had problems meeting our needs, but now we’re cultivating 200 hectares and we run our own business”, Tisse said.
In Nganda, increased crop production has enabled women to make the most of a bumper harvest by preparing bags of sankhal (processed crushed millet) for desserts and arraw (rolled flour pellets) for porridge.
The women pooled their earnings to set up a bank and lend themselves money for their individual projects at a fixed interest rate of 10%.
Tenning Ngom (27) has been a beneficiary. “My work for the collective is to sieve millet after the harvest. I work from November to February.”
For the rest of the year, Ngom runs a roadside catering concern started when the women’s group lent her money. “My first loan dates from 2015,” she said. “I have paid it all back.” — AFP