Before the onset of Covid-19, women farmers were already grappling with challenges ranging from access to financing, poor bargaining power as well as the climate crisis.
Women are now bearing the brunt of rising hunger due to Covid-19 as they skip meals so that their children can eat and face rising levels of gender-based violence. This is according to a report by ActionAid.
The report was compiled as a result of research conducted in Bangladesh, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Gambia, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Nepal, Rwanda, Senegal, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe last September. It was based on a study of 190 individuals, including 79 smallholder farmers, the majority women, and 71 rural women leaders.
As one of the effects of the global pandemic, Covid-19 reduced income levels for many small holder women farmers. The report also notes that market disruptions such as closure of local markets made it difficult for women smallholder farmers to sell food they had grown as well as to buy supplementary foodstuffs. This in turn affected levels and access to food for their households.
“Right now we are not eating a balanced diet but for survival,” Catherine Wanja, a smallholder farmer was quoted as saying in the report. According to Catherine Gutundu, ActionAid’s head of resilient livelihoods and climate justice, around the world, Covid-19 has left women farmers indebted and hungry.
“Many of them now can’t afford to plant for the next season. A dangerous spiral of increasing hunger and poverty could set in unless governments urgently increase their support to family farmers now,” she says.
ActionAid is calling on governments to prioritise investment in sustainable, climate-resilient local food systems as part of Covid-19 recovery plans.
Patriarchy and gender disparities
The agricultural sector is marred by gender inequalities. Women farmers are particularly at risk of hunger, especially when crisis strikes. On average, rural women account for nearly half the agricultural workforce in developing countries.
Despite their crucial roles in household food security, they face discrimination and limited bargaining power. Patriarchal norms create disadvantages for women farmers, specifically in land rights (small plots, difficulties attaining ownership, discriminatory inheritance rights), productive resources (no access to credit, extension services or inputs), unpaid work, insecure employment and exclusion from decision-making and political representation.
Since the onset of Covid-19, existing inequalities have been further exacerbated, as already vulnerable and marginalized groups are faced with additional challenges and even further reductions in their access to services and opportunities. Women represent one such group who, despite comprising 50–75% of the African workforce, remain under-represented and with their needs not sufficiently met.
Amid these challenging times, and prevalent inequalities, the Cultivate Africa’s Future (CultiAF) initiative, jointly funded by Canada’s International Development Research Center (IDRC) and the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research, has been working to bring equality to the forefront of agricultural research and achieve a food secure future in Africa while innovating financing mechanisms to benefit and empower women.
Precooked beans initiative
In Kenya and Uganda, an initiative called the ‘precooked beans initiative’ which works to make beans more accessible to households, is working hard to address gender inequality in their value chain and communities. The project has so far developed three precooked bean products: a ready-to-eat bean snack; a bean flour; and a precooked bean product that takes only 15 minutes to cook.
One of CultiAF’s initiatives in Uganda is the development of a digital framework through which farmers are paid for their produce directly. This ensures that all money female farmers earn is received by them directly. This system empowers women as autonomous business owners, enabling them to register their businesses in their own right, and access their profits independently in order to make their own decisions as to how they will use the money they earn.
One such beneficiary is Nalongo Nabukeera Mary, a smallholder farmer in Uganda and mother of eight children. Through this project, Mary began farming improved bean varieties, supplied by CultiAF, which resulted in huge improvements in her productivity. As a farmer group member, Mary opened up an account with the Masaka Microfinance Development Cooperative Trust. She used the loan she acquired, and has since completely paid it off, to diversify her business and pay school fees for her children.
“My family has been able to improve our production and consumption of high iron and zinc beans, which has made us food, nutrition and income secure,” she says.
In Malawi, the CultiAF project is empowering women to capitalize on improved methods of processing fish, which are more environmentally-friendly, effective and profitable than traditional methods. However, these technologies cannot be realized to their full potential unless women have access to finance. According to a statement from Cultivate Africa, the project has established an innovative partnership with FDH bank, a private commercial bank, to provide loans to fish processors. As part of the project’s gender empowerment strategy, female fish processors are given a preferential reduced interest rate. So far, MKw.19.6 million ($25,067) has been distributed among six fish processors, of which three are women, who have constructed six solar dryers, five smoking kilns and two warehouses.
Santiago Alba Corral, Director of IDRC’s Climate-Resilient Food Systems program believes that integrating gender equality at the core of any project, society or community, is crucial in building resilience even to the biggest pandemic of the century. “The fact that inequality, and the potential of gender transformative research was already part of the design of CultiAF has actually helped us to absorb part of the shock of Covid-19 within the projects, because every single initiative already had a gender framework as part of its approach,” he said.
“The last year has made evident that situations affect men and women differently, so now no one can argue that the gender disparity we’ve been working to address does not exist. It is critical we must now capitalize on this increased awareness to rally alliances and partnerships and to undertake actions to address inequalities,” says Edidah Lubega Ampaire, Cultivate Africa’s Senior Program Specialist.