Unlocking Opportunity for Women Farmers

A woman walks along a dirt road holding a basket of citrus fruit atop her head.

Tractors, combines, and other mechanized farm equipment are a familiar sight throughout the developed world. They're so common that we barely even notice them. But in developing countries, a single piece of farm equipment—even one that you borrow every once in a while—is more than just a labor saving device. It's a lifesaver, particularly for women like Mrs. Norah Mubiana, of Zambia. She, along with millions of other female farmers throughout Africa, is the only barrier between her family and starvation.

Not an easy life. Sweltering heat, scarce water, insufficient food - that's the grim reality of daily life for women farmers in developing countries. After a grueling fifteen-hour workday planting, hoeing and weeding, there is no guarantee of a harvest.

But when there’s just a little bit of give, these women can change the trajectory of their lives and the lives of everyone who depends on them. Amazing things can happen when the women farmers of Africa can own a piece of land, use a tractor, and acquire good seed.

With the same access to resources as men, women would produce 20-30 percent more food. Food output in developing countries would increase by 2.5 to four percent – enough to feed 100-150 million people. These statistics from the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization aren’t just numbers. They're a formula to a more food secure world.

Mother. Daughter. Wife. Provider.

In the world's poorest countries, women are often at the helm of the family farm, responsible for earning an income, feeding their children, and contributing to their community’s economy. With 80 percent of the farmland in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia managed by smallholders, women comprise an average of 43 percent of the agricultural labor force.

Women are the backbone of economies in the developing world—the first line of defense against starvation and the key to better nutrition, managing everything from livestock care to crop production. Yet, they control only a fraction of the land, training, equipment, capital, high quality seed, and information compared to men. Their biggest problem doesn’t stem from the local climate, soil or irrigation. It's lack of equal access.

From Manual Labor to Mechanized Equipment

Mrs. Mubiana is all too familiar with the hardships smallholder farmers face. In 2001, she was equipped with just seven hand hoes. Mubiana, her husband and six children spent long hours planting and weeding to prepare their land. The exhaustive, manual labor cultivated less than a hectare and produced a mere 0.2 tons of maize.

Ten years later, one small thing changed. She was able to use tillage services from a member of the community who bought a tractor and reaper under the Conservation Farming Unit (CFU). The CFU works with African farmers to implement practices that can reduce costs, increase yields and help gain access to services and inputs necessary to farm more efficiently. With CFU assistance and farming methods, Mubiana was able to access mechanized equipment and training that led from one opportunity to another. In the 2011 season, she expanded her fields and harvested over 178 tons of maize, some of which was sold to purchase a truck. In 2014, she saw a yield of 214 tons of maize.

Now a DuPont Pioneer Extension Partner, Mubiana has grown her business, ensuring she can feed her family and help her community thrive. She recently installed a pump and irrigation system that allows her to farm during the dry season. The revenue from her maize sales will be used to expand her irrigation system.

Feeding Families, Feeding the World

The world's population is predicted to grow by 150,000 people every day for the next 40 years, with one billion of these new lives born in Africa. Food production must increase by 70 percent to feed them. With over 60 percent of the world's share of uncultivated, arable land, Africa has an enormous opportunity to become a net food exporter.

When women farmers like Mubiana are empowered with the tools to succeed, they can increase local food availability and create global food security. Supporting and investing in rural women has been shown to significantly increase productivity, reduce hunger and malnutrition, and improve livelihoods.

At a 2015 International Women’s Day event, the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) President Kanayo F. Nwanze focused on the "feminization of agriculture" in his keynote speech.

According to Nwanze, "Too often, rural women are doing the backbreaking work. To improve women's social and economic status, we need more recognition for the vital role they play in the rural economy. Rural women need more opportunities to participate, improve their skills, gain access to assets, and be involved in agricultural production and marketing. Let us all work together to empower women to achieve food and nutrition security. For their sake, and the sake of their families and communities."

Bridging the Gender Gap to Boost Food Security

The important contributions women make to agriculture go far beyond the field. DuPont is collaborating with African Women in Agricultural Research and Development (AWARD), committing $400,000 over four years to help strengthen the research skills of female African agricultural scientists.

Although the majority of those who produce, process and market Africa's food are women, only one in four agricultural researchers is female, according to a 2008 AWARD study. Fewer than one in seven of the leaders of agricultural institutions are female.

Dr. Hewan Degu, assistant professor and the director of Quality Assurance at Dilla University in Ethiopia, is the only female PhD holder at the University. She is enrolled in a postgraduate program in plant biotechnology and learning advanced science training at Pioneer. Her goal is to help rural communities deal with the predicted impacts of climate change by breeding and promoting drought-tolerant crops to break the vicious cycle of drought, food insecurity, and poverty.

A passionate advocate for gender equality, she is devoted to helping women and girls pursue studies in science to solve food security challenges.

"Girls were not recognized in Gondar, where I used to work; they were forced into early marriage and do not see any value in education," she said. "I could not understand that. I seemed to be the only one fighting this unwritten law, and I was considered strange."

She hopes to shift that old mentality with every female student she inspires to pursue a career in science.

Local Collaboration Leads to Global Solutions

Collaboration across industries, NGOs and governments fuels innovative, local approaches that can effectively address the access issue. By ensuring women have what they need to be more successful in their communities, we can pave a clear path that lifts families out of poverty, creates jobs throughout the agricultural value chain, advances farming practices, and boosts overall agricultural productivity.

Women farmers in Africa, and around the globe, are essential economic partners that have the power to feed their children, and the world.