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Women Farmers Find Their Voice in Policy Process

Women farmers are an important pillar of communities whose livelihoods depend almost entirely on the agricultural sector. At a subsistence level they stave off hunger and are often the backbone of many rural economies across the world.

Elizabeth Mpofu, the chairperson of Zimbabwe Smallholder Organic Farmers Forum (ZIMSOFF), says the agricultural sector is a source of livelihood to about 65% of Zimbabweans who live in rural areas. In these communities it’s important for farmers to have a measure of control over the cycles and events in the sector. An important area where farmers need independence is in the use and exchange of seeds. Elizabeth says seeds are fundamental to agriculture.

“At the centre of agriculture is the issue of seeds. Seeds are not only a strong symbol for food sovereignty and biodiversity, but also one of the important elements to strengthen smallholder farming communities.”

In Zimbabwe, where she is based, smallholder farmers are mostly affected by two systems of seed regulation. The first is the formal system developed by state authorities and the private sector. It is a market-oriented system.

The second, which ZIMSOFF is keen on safeguarding, is a community-based production system that hinges on seed saving and exchange under the less stringent circumstances of kinship. The sharing among members of the community results in seeds with a rich biodiversity.

Farming communities in the SADC region have had to deal with severe climate conditions that have threatened food security. In Mozambique, the recent drought left more than 1.5-million people in need of food assistance. Following the drought, which also affected Zimbabwe and South Africa, were incidents of severe flooding as well as cyclones.

These are challenges that Mpofu says are impossible to overcome if smallholder farmers are not empowered or lack capacity. This is the kind of support her organization received from the Southern Africa Trust. “The Trust has been involved in initiatives aimed at capacity building and allowing the flow of dialogue among stakeholders in the farming sector with specific attention paid to women farmers,” she said.

“The assistance from the Trust has enabled ZIMSOFF to mobilise and increase its membership. Organisational development has also improved with improved capacity and strengthening skills of the organisation. The assistance has also enabled ZIMSOFF to organize loose smallholder farmers into associations,” commented Mpofu.

The interests of smallholder farmers are tied to the wellbeing of millions of people across the globe. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations there are roughly 795-million people who suffer from hunger. This means one in every nine people in the world is undernourished. The figures for sub-Saharan Africa are even more grim, with almost one in every four people likely to suffer from undernourishment.

This is the global level at which Mpofu engages with important issues affecting the agricultural sector. In August 2016 she was nominated by the FAO as Special Ambassador for Africa. This role was under the auspices of the International Year of Pulses, a programme dedicated to paying special attention to crops such as beans, peas, sweet potatoes, pumpkins, sorghum and other nutrient-rich legumes that also help in maintaining the fertility of the soil.

Additions she has made to the discourse include a realisation that health problems are intricately tied to diet. Among the conversations of which she has been a prime driver focus on what could be learnt from practices aimed at investing in healthy food systems. At the FAO these discussions take place among thousands of experts in agriculture from around the world.

These kinds of conversation get practical expression at the Shashe Agro-Ecology School. The school is a community-based institution dedicated to the sharing of knowledge among farmers. The school in Shashe, part of the Masvingo Province in southeast Zimbabwe, is part of an effort to fight for food sovereignty among peasant communities. It is a platform where the more than 10,000 farmers that are associated with ZIMSOFF can interact meaningfully with ordinary villagers.

The school is part of the global peasant rights’ movement La Via Campesina’s network of 40 colleges throughout the world. The peasants’ movement, where Mpofu holds the Office of General Coordinator, has more than 200-million members across the world. Its college programme aims at promoting understanding of agro-ecology – a focus on sustainable agricultural practices that conserve the often fragile balance in ecosystems. Mpofu is excited about what the school promises.

“The Shashe Agro-Ecology School allows members of other communities to visit and learn from the practices of the local farmers. The school has enabled farmers to be connected, sharing the knowledge gained from their own experience and learning from other smallholder farmers,” she said.

Also important to the growth of smallholder farmers is the input they provide in policy formulation initiatives. This enables farmers to engage and contribute to policy frameworks like the SADC Regional Agricultural Policy. Engagements such as the annual Regional Smallholder Women’s Farmer Conference has allowed women in the region to deal with laws and cultural practices that restrict women in farming circles.

Most encouraging, however, is the positive response from smallholder farmers, according to Mpofu.

“The farmers agree that there is a need to understand traditional farming knowledge systems that used to prevail before the Green revolution.”

She added that the baseline study they use has been useful in understanding the context in which they find themselves.

“It’s an important tool towards the revival of lost traditional seeds, the reclamation of degraded land, the intensive harvesting of run-off and the entire nurturing of the environment using indigenous and traditional knowledge systems.”

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