In my experience as a leader in Africa’s agricultural and food systems, I have witnessed first-hand how innovative rural women can be. In the Bagré commune of Boulgou Province in Eastern Burkina Faso, where all land is assigned to men, I have seen women establish themselves as rice processors, immediately transforming their households’ incomes.
In Mozambique, Maria Elsa Antonio, a 30-year-old mother of six is now a respected agribusiness advisor, after receiving agricultural training from an AGRA (the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa) project. Formerly a struggling subsistence farmer, Ms. Antonio now knows how to work her production to grow enough maize for household consumption with surplus for the market. Her agricultural enterprise has flourished so much that she now supplies farmers in her community with the same yield-increasing inputs that she uses on her farm, with her customers gaining the added advantage of agronomic advice from her.
These are not unique examples; there are numerous such cases across the continent showing how rural women work around limiting constraints to establish growing agri-food ventures. Yet, even as they play a critical role in Africa’s food systems, many rural women in agriculture still have to contend with greater constraints than men in accessing productive resources like land, financial assets, technologies and markets. These difficulties impinge their ability to grow.
These endemic challenges were brought to the fore at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, early last year. Women were disproportionately affected by the lockdowns and movement restrictions as they were left to find alternative ways to fend for their families, amidst difficulties that were new to the whole world. Indeed, various studies have confirmed that the pandemic disproportionately affected rural women’s productive, reproductive and income-generating capacities while at the same time increasing their workload and escalating gender-based violence.
It is such difficulties that the world needs reminding about around this year’s International Day of Rural Women, organized by the United Nations to recognize the role that rural women play in producing food and building a sustainable agricultural and rural development world.
While the spotlight shines on our rural grandmothers, mothers and daughters, it is also an opportune time to declare that, as a continent, we must now do all it takes to alleviate the strife that our women in agriculture undergo to keep us well nourished, while securing a better future for coming generations.
Going forward, we must create an environment where rural women benefit from their investments – including generating more time, money and energy. Rural women should receive equal pay that is commensurate to their input. There is no reason why they still do not have equal access to land ownership and other important productive resources.
Our journey to the equitable world that I envision will be quickened through a conducive policy environment that considers the role of women in agri-food systems and ensures that their needs are adequately addressed. To get here, governments need to invest in women’s leadership and engage rural women in the design and implementation of policies to include their perspectives while ensuring that their priorities are considered.
As we pursue action from policymakers, we all must play our role in fast-tracking this transformation, which is now long overdue.
On this note, the private sector is invited to create additional focus and initiatives for the fair participation of women farmers and entrepreneurs in agri-food systems. Financial services institutions, especially, are encouraged to create support mechanisms targeting rural women in agribusiness. This support includes lower interest rates and credit lines targeting rural women and driven by higher risk tolerance and expanded collateral requirements.
The scientific community must also continue generating appropriate data and innovative technologies for equalizing gender-related inequalities. Better data and monitoring will guide the design of solutions by stakeholders that address the differentiated needs and priorities of rural women.
Some of this data has been gainfully used by AGRA, the institution I lead, to develop high-impact initiatives like Value4her, a continental program linking women agripreneurs to markets, capital, skills and business intelligence. The Value4her network prepares women-led businesses to become visible through digital networking, creating more financing opportunities for them. Similar impactful and scalable products and technologies can be developed and scaled, guided by improved and disaggregated research and data.
In conclusion, let us celebrate the role of rural women and remind ourselves of the need to work together on solutions to the ingrained challenges and inequities that they continue to face. Collaboration will put us on a path to the attainment of inclusivity goals, leading to even more benefits for food and nutrition security, and eradication of poverty from Africa.
By Dr. Agnes Kalibata: President of AGRA (the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa) and the UN Special Envoy for the Food Systems Summit.