The majority of women in developing countries rely on agriculture, and it is widely acknowledged that gender should be a major consideration in agricultural development for the rural poor.
The International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) gives gender a high priority in all its research programs and this is reflected in the clear gender strategy developed within the two CGIAR research programs led by ICRISAT: CRP on Dryland Cereals and CRP on Grain Legumes.
The gender strategy means we look at gender as a cross-cutting issue in all our research by systematically considering and addressing gender disparities, constraints, and opportunities alongside conducting complementary strategic gender research on a few gender-specific research issues and questions. Strategic gender research will cover diagnostic research to orient technology and market development and assessment of outcomes and impacts as feedback to technology and market development.
This will enable us to realize outputs that address issues limiting agricultural success for women and generate new opportunities to improve nutritional and food security for them and their families. These outputs include:
• Gender-disaggregated data and analysis to fully understand the differential roles of men and women in order to better guide the research-for-development priorities;
• Policies, institutions and technologies to enable higher income-earning opportunities for women, and to reduce women’s drudgery cultivation, post-harvest and processing operations; and
• Women being equally included in capacity strengthening activities.
The best way to illustrate these activities is through real life examples where women have been consulted, involved and supported to drive improvements in agriculture. This could start with land access, as shown in our work on Bioreclamation of Degraded Lands in west Africa, where most women have no or few rights to agricultural land. ICRISAT worked with local NGOs to help women form associations and gain access to communal village wasteland. These women’s groups were then trained to revitalise barren lands by using simple water and soil conservation techniques, such as zai pits (small holes enriched with compost), to plant drought-tolerant trees and crops, and applying small amounts of fertiliser to the plant root, a technique known as microdosing.
Identifying and working with strong women role models is also key. Maimouna Coulibaly, Mali’s first woman seed entrepreneur, is working with ICRISAT to promote high yielding sorghum and groundnut varieties adapted to the climate, needs, and tastes of local farmers, particularly women. By selling these seeds in small packets at local markets, they are more accessible and affordable for women farmers. She holds regular tasting sessions with women to demonstrate seed varieties and get feedback from them on their preference and needs.
ICRISAT has further developed this partnership with Maimouna’s seed enterprise Faso Kaba. In line with our Inclusive Market-Oriented Development (IMOD) approach, we have been training women groundnut seed producers from Wakoro to produce quality seeds and then linking them to markets like Faso Kaba.
At last week’s 6th Africa Agriculture Science Week organized by the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA), women were rightly identified as a priority for improving productivity and resilience in African agriculture. Groundnut is a major staple crop in Africa grown mainly by women and contributes to up to 64 percent of household cash revenue in Mali, 66 percent in Niger and 54 percent in Nigeria. This is why ICRISAT and a range of partners, including public institutions and NGOs, are involving women in research to test and then cultivate resilient groundnut varieties. This has resulted in new groundnut varieties being tested in Mali (of which nine are short duration and drought tolerant, five resistant to foliar diseases and eight tolerant to aflatoxin contamination) in 40 villages, involving 1,450 farmers (85 percent women).
To improve the situation for women farmers, we certainly need to look at farming issues such as land rights, training, and access to better seeds and markets. But we also need to address the heavy burden of post-harvest chores. The pestle and mortar are still the main tools used to grind staple cereals such as millet and sorghum in most sub-Saharan countries. But manually grinding grains is painful and time-consuming for rural women with relentless daily workloads in West Africa.
ICRISAT and its partners have been working with women to try progressive technologies to ease their work burden. As part of the HOPE Project, women farmers like Zénabou Halilou from Niger are replacing manual pestle and mortars with grinding machines that save time and labour. This has freed up their time for other activities such as poultry farming and cooking the evening meal so the children eat before going to bed.
An in-depth assessment study of the implications of the gender-specific initiatives of the HOPE project is currently being carried out in South Asia, West and Central Africa, and Eastern and Southern Africa.
The study will assess the impact of these initiatives on women in terms of reduced drudgery, increased knowledge, higher yields, increase in access and control of production resources, and benefits, including income that could lead to gender equality and women’s empowerment.
The drought, displacement, and famine in east Africa and the recurrent food crises in the western Sahel region clearly shows how urgently we need to find long-term solutions to improve people’s lives. Small-scale women farmers need to be a central part of the process. They grow up to 90 percent of the food in some African countries, so innovative ideas and partnerships need to improve their harvests and incomes. Gender strategies need to guide agricultural research, and we must ensure that these translate to visible results to sustainably change the lives of women and their communities.