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African women farm majority of Africa’s food but own less than majority of land

By Jehron Muhammad | Last updated: May 13, 2020 - 2:02:43 PM

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Historically, African women have been the continent’s workforce for food production, yet history reveals they have only limited access to the very basic tools required to produce food.

Studies show that women account for nearly half of the world’s smallholder farms and produce roughly 70 percent of Africa’s food. Yet, women’s ownership of land they farm equals less than 20 percent.


Additionally, according to South Africa’s Farmers Weekly, “There are significant gender disparities in the way that key resources essential for the success in agriculture are distributed across Africa. Access to land, inputs, assets, markets, information and knowledge, time, decision-making authority and income still present a challenge for women in the sector.”

Since “most of the food that is eaten within the continent comes from these small scale farmers … (and) that’s what most of the African population is consuming,” you’d think these women farmers would have access to the latest farming inputs. This is not the case said, Christabel Phiri, Mobilization and Engagement Manager at the Southern African Trust.

Ms. Phiri, whose “passion” is helping Africa’s subsistence farming population, said to Africa Watch from her office in Johannesburg, that on top of not having access to the latest farming inputs, “women don’t own the land.”

Ms. Phiri, who is responsible for coordinating the trust’s programs related to trade, migration and agriculture with a focus on southern Africa, said that women should be repeatedly told until it becomes commonplace, “Women have the right to own land.”

Currently, “They think the land should be owned only by the husband and not them. So (they need to know) what their rights are and what initiatives exist to assist them,” said Ms. Phiri.

“The land,” said Ms. Phiri, who earned a graduate degree in economics and industrial policy from the University of Johannesburg, “is usually owned by the men. And even if the man dies, another extended member of the family will then take over,” she said.

“It’s not like it’s then given to the women. So the rights to accessing land, even land ownership, is still a challenge within Africa (even) though women are the main producers of food.”

Responding via phone to questions, “What are the laws on the books saying about land ownership?” Ms. Phiri, who was a panelist on the recent Final Call sponsored online forum, “Africa: The economic ramifications of the coronavirus pandemic,” responded, “There has been an effort at the national level in different countries to try and ensure that land distribution is given to women. But the laws of the land do not override the traditional customary laws that exist within a particular rural setting. So, the chiefs and the traditional leaders who allocate land and follow certain cultural customs … can’t be eroded easily.”

There are many examples of women actually being displaced by local customs or after the death of the husband. In one such incident reported in a United Nations publication, Felitus Kures—living in Kapchorwa, northeastern Uganda—husband died. This left Ms. Kures with the sole responsibility of caring for their children. To meet these needs, she depended on the small plot of land she and her husband had farmed together.

“But just months after his funeral, her in-laws sold her husband’s land without her knowledge,” the publication noted. Ms. Kures said, “We only realized this when the buyer came to evict us.” She said she was able to secure assistance from the help of the Uganda Land Alliance, a civil society group that campaigns for land rights. But how many women have been evicted from land they’ve worked most of their lives, because there was no such available assistance, or because local customs deny women the right to own land?

According to Benjamin Cousins, a researcher for International Food Policy Research Institute or IFPERI, after colonial rule with the introduction of Western systems of land tenure, White settlers introduced and encouraged the privatization and subdivision of land, “held under individual freehold titles.” In the case of Western Africa “much of the land was taken under communal forms of ownership, managed by customary leaders.”

Cousins said today many “traditional” rules of land ownership or Western statutory laws or dual systems live side-by-side.

The institute provided an example: In southwestern Nigeria, because of confusion in terms of which rules to follow, rich elites were able to collude with tribal chiefs to buy up land, “which was formally owned by the kinship group, without anyone, especially women, being able to stop it.”

Another issue raised by Ms. Phiri was that “even though women are able to produce, and harvest crops, they don’t know how to market their produce. So men (in some cases with ulterior motives) come in and offer to sell their produce.” She said they don’t know what is a fair market price for their produce and whether or not these men that are selling their produce are skimming off the top of the monies that the harvested crops they sold generated.

Ms. Phiri mentioned the need for capacity building. She stated the four areas necessary to substantially improve small farmers’ ability to produce and market a profitable crop includes: access to land and land ownership; access to finance, access to credit; access to agricultural inputs and access to markets.

She said female farmers need access to knowledge “in terms of policy initiatives that are existing at the national level that governments have put in place, which can benefit women farmers.” In addition, what organizations are available to assist women farmers. She said there needs to be a mechanism created that apprises them of all polices that affect them, and also how to get local, regional and national governments to adopt new polices that might include some kind of “seed initiatives or marketing initiatives.”

Ms. Phiri said creating platforms so women’s voices could be heard should be high on the list. She said organizing small farmers into units and creating platforms where they could voice their “challenges and experiences” to “policymakers” is key. “We need to create those platforms for their voices to be heard. And when we do that policymakers will be able to respond to their issues, which are affecting them directly.” Additionally, she stressed utilizing and training farmers “in terms of different forms of technology.”

“How do you introduce using certain initiatives that might include smart apps … things that can be translated into local languages that they can understand?” Ms. Phiri said, they could create an app that tells what crops are seasonal and will produce the best yield.

Also, she said there needs to be a communication network between farmers, so they don’t “all grow tomatoes.” She said they must make sure they diversify their crop growing and she said this could be done by the usage of an app on a smart phone.

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