The West African Regional Center of Excellence on Improving Adaptation to Drought (CERAAS), a research organization based in Senegal, is building resilience in West and Central Africa by empowering women in agriculture.
“Women in rural areas are the labor workforce in Africa’s food system,” says Marème Niang Belko, Agronomist at CERAAS. “But most of them are analphabetic, or have a very low level of education, and constraints to time management.”
Many women in West and Central Africa lack access to technology, quality seeds and fertilizers, agricultural infrastructure, credit, extension services, and markets. They are also poorly represented in the scientific and research community, according to Africa Development Bank: In 2016, women comprised only 6 percent of researchers in Guinea, 11 percent of researchers in Mali, and about 17 percent in Côte d’Ivoire.
“Women’s time…because of home, child, and family care, is very low to participate in scientific events and training, to efficiently work to win proposals, to access the table of decision-making and information,” says Belko.
CERAAS was started in 1989 by the Senegalese Institute of Agricultural Research (ISRA) and the West and Central Africa Council for Agricultural Research and Development (CORAF), the largest sub-regional research organization in Africa. Today, almost 50 percent of CERAAS research programs are led by women, according to Belko.
“Women dominate the staff members…they are researchers, field and lab technicians, administration officers, communication officers, account officers, control and quality staff, students,” says Belko. “They [have made] positive change and impact.”
CORAF collaborates with the African Women in Agricultural Research and Development program (AWARD) to provide scientific and leadership capacity-building for women fellows, including Belko. Belko is now co-leading the Crop Innovation in West Africa (CIWA) project in Senegal, working to connect West African plant breeders with CIWA’s gender team to ensure that farming activities are more resilient and inclusive. She also co-founded SenAWARD, an AWARD alumni association helping women scientists share knowledge and learn about calls for proposals, training, workshops, and more.
The region has seen progress, but much more work is needed to empower women in agriculture, according to Mariame Maiga, PhD, Regional Gender and Social Development Advisor at CORAF.
“While efforts are made to improve women’s access to needed agricultural resources to enhance food productivity to meet the population food demand, the agricultural sector is still faced with challenges, as it needs to be more gender-responsive and inclusive enough to meet sustainable food system objectives,” says Maiga.
Women need better access to and control over resources like agricultural technologies, land, quality seeds, inputs, extension services, finance, and markets to increase their productivity and economic growth, says Maiga. Providing access to services like phones, for example, can help to facilitate this.
Belko emphasizes that finding opportunities to empower women in West and Central Africa requires “understanding their work, constraints and opportunities, preferences and needs.” This includes understanding women’s decision-making and spending power within their families and communities, which often prevents their capacity building and development.
And government leaders can play an important role by promoting women’s participation in and contribution to policy development, facilitating easier access to land and finance, and providing other training and support where needed, says Belko. “Find out the entry points of women’s empowerment.”
For Maiga, empowering women is not only a social justice and equality issue—it is imperative for the region to meet U.N. Sustainable Development Goals.
“Persisting gender inequalities in agricultural research and development threatens efforts towards a region free from hunger, malnutrition, and poverty,” Maiga and co-authors write in a forthcoming book on gender and youth dimensions in agricultural research and development.
“Closing the gender gap with women’s empowerment and leadership is critical to West and Central Africa’s food system,” says Maiga.
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Photo courtesy of Habib houndekindo, Wikimedia Commons