In sub-Saharan Africa, women are the backbone of agriculture and make up most of the labour force in the sector, but they face many barriers that prevent them from enjoying the benefits of this economic activity. The key challenges facing women are access to land, credit, and agricultural inputs as well as advanced technologies and tools to help them improve agricultural production, particularly in the rural areas.
The face of agriculture remains female and more than 60% of employed women in the south of the Sahara work in agriculture. The Southern Africa Trust research findings show that the majority of women in agriculture are involved in small scale farming due to limited financial resources, knowledge and use of farming technologies. Also, in most developing countries, only 10-20% of landowners are women. Most women have no rights to the family land and are often excluded from making any decisions. Women can therefore not use the land as collateral to access credit for any substantial investment. This confirms the gender-based discrimination facing women, whereby men play a dominant role in decision making on behalf of their families or as members of the farmer groups. This further undermines women’s rights, concerning land and business finances for family-owned enterprises.
The other challenge facing women is the limited access to credit, financial institutions focus their commercial lending on individuals and entities that are considered able to make repayment on loans and who meet the basic lending requirements. Women farmers have limited access to credit because they are considered high-risk applicants, as they lack the financial or material security to put down as collateral. Secondly, because of their fluctuating income flows, it is difficult for women to use standardised loan products that require regular payment. This limits them to acquire sufficient inputs, farming equipment and other requirements for the businesses. Women are mainly funded by family, own savings, personal loans, and village savings loans. Women farmers who borrow money from Village Savings Loans (VSLs) complain that the interest rates are too high to the extent that they end up accumulating debts.
Women also have limited access to the numerous agricultural inputs that constitute one of the major costs in agricultural production. Lack of key operational inputs and mechanised farming equipment, as well as limited knowledge on improved agriculture practices, lack of training, and limited processing and business skills are experienced more acutely by women. These range from feed stuffs, fertilisers and permitted plant protection products, as well as cleaning agents and additives. Most women do not have an adequate supply of inputs as they are either not supplied freely by the government or do not have sufficient resources to purchase them.
Access to markets is hindered by the lack of transportation placing a huge burden on women to carry the load on their heads, for example, to the markets and grinding mills, in fulfilment of their ascribed gender roles. The lack of storage facilities for farm produce also tends to increase losses of harvests, aggravating the challenges of poverty that governments must contend with.
Climate change has also brought a whole new set of challenges. It has increased the risks of natural hazards which negatively affect agricultural output, imposing considerable challenges concerning the type and volume of input requirements. Long distances from their communities to input markets, lead to expensive transport costs for carrying bags of fertilisers and other materials required for farming.
Women farmers can be successful, which will result in significant benefits to families, communities and African countries. African women farmers can achieve increased agricultural production with the right investment and policies. Also, to achieve Sustainable Development Goal number five of gender equality and to empower women and girls particularly in the agriculture sector, we will need to address challenges faced by women farmers.
In consideration of the observations noted, the following are policy recommendations that can enable the empowerment of women farmers.
- Most policies targeted at developing specific sub-sectors in agriculture tend to be gender-neutral and therefore do not actively help women overcome the constraints that they face. The SADC Regional Agricultural Policy adopted in 2015 acknowledges gender equality and empowerment as an established regional priority. In this regard, the Policy advocates for promoting and supporting the effective mainstreaming of gender issues of relevance to agriculture, food and nutrition security into regional and national policies and strategies. SADC should also expedite the operationalisation of the Regional Development Fund which will usher in the Regional Agriculture Development Fund, aimed at supporting agricultural development in the region, which will facilitate support for women farmers.
- There is a need for increased support to farmer’s union and associations. Women farmers who are members of cooperatives or farmer's unions and associations continue to express satisfaction with some of the benefits of belonging to these platforms. As members of these associations, women farmers have access to farm inputs (mostly certified seed), capacity building skills, marketing information and sometimes ready markets for their produce. In the Southern Africa Trust research, women farmers in Malawi indicated how they benefited from being members of a farmer association that allowed them to pay back seed loans with the produced seed after harvesting and the organisation that lent them the seed would buy back their produce.
- More land reform initiatives need to be effectively implemented. It should be considered as a key resource for agricultural production as well as business. The lack of access to land by women will have a dampening effect in increasing agricultural productivity and poverty alleviation.