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Over 70% of people in sub-Saharan Africa depend on agriculture for their livelihoods. In sub-Saharan Africa, over 60% of employed women work in the agricultural sector and a significant number of them are smallholder farmers. Thus, it may be rightly said that African women are the backbone of the continent’s agriculture and nutrition.

A Malawian woman works in her maize field. We need to close the gender gap in agriculture to boost Africa’s agricultural productivity (photo credit: ILRI/Stevie Mann).

A Malawian woman works in her maize field. We need to close the gender gap in agriculture to boost Africa’s agricultural productivity (photo credit: ILRI/Stevie Mann).

However, despite the pivotal role that women play in Africa’s agriculture sector, two recent flagship reports by the Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Bank show that a gender gap exists in agriculture, with rural women farmers facing a number of constraints not experienced by their male counterparts.

The reports provide evidence that empowering women farmers and increasing their access to land, inputs, information, credit and farming technologies can lead to increased agricultural productivity and food security.

The Food and Agriculture Organization’s State of Food and Agriculture 2010-2011 report on women in agriculture provides evidence that if rural women in developing countries had the same access to land, technology, credit, education and markets as men did, yields on women’s farms could be increased by 20–30%. This would result in an increase in agricultural production in developing countries by 2.5–4% which could in turn reduce the number of hungry people in the world by 12–17%, or 100–150 million.

The World Bank’s World Development Report 2012 on gender equality and development observes that greater gender equality can enhance productivity, improve development outcomes for the next generation and make institutions more representative.

These two reports both bring to the fore the urgent need to close the gender gap in agriculture in order to boost agricultural productivity and ensure food security.

But what steps can African countries take to empower women farmers and bring about agricultural transformation, thereby ensuring that Africa can feed Africa? How can we bring agricultural science and innovation to bear on food security, improved nutrition, better health and sustainable development for the continent?

At the macro level, African governments need to remain committed to meeting the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP) targets of raising agricultural productivity by at least 6% per year and public investment in agriculture by 10% in order to achieve agriculture-led socioeconomic growth.

This will necessitate increased investment in agricultural research, science, technology and innovation, the engines that will drive the continent forward towards increased productivity, enhanced food and nutrition security and better health for all.

National agriculture and land policies need to be gender responsive (acknowledging that gender differences exist) as well as gender transformative (committed to bringing about equity in gender relations). Governments also need to realize that development policies relating to agriculture are likely to influence men and women farmers differently.  Therefore, agriculture policy recommendations aimed at improving the sector should ensure that women farmers are not disadvantaged and that there is gender equity between men and women farmers.

At the program and project level, there should be greater attention to gender in the design, implementation and monitoring of development programs and projects aimed at improving livelihoods through agricultural interventions. There is also need for greater accountability in projects and programs with regard to the achievement of gender-related outcomes.

The time is now. We must place gender firmly on the agenda for agricultural transformation in Africa, with women farmers – and their empowerment – at the heart of the agricultural agenda for Africa.

Blogpost originally posted on the FARA Science Week blog.

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