Women are essential to transforming Africa’s agrifood systems and attaining the continent’s job creation, growth and health agendas. Close to two-thirds of African women are employed in agrifood systems in roles ranging from farmers to agrodealers to educators to traders. Women also play a lead role in supporting the nutritional health and well-being of their families. Yet, women’s agency and capacity to participate in food systems transformation is hindered by a combination of socioeconomic, institutional and cultural barriers that entrench gender inequality.
A recent report by the Malabo Montpellier Panel launched in June, Bridging the Gap: Policy Innovations to Put Women at the Center of Food Systems Transformation in Africa, details the status of women in Africa’s food systems, including the key challenges that must be dismantled for true empowerment and gender equality. It then identifies policy recommendations to strengthen women’s participation in agrifood systems, drawing on the experiences of four countries — Ethiopia, Ghana, Rwanda and Togo — systematically selected for their success in driving systems-level change and transformation through targeted government action.
Various obstacles hinder African women’s full contribution to agrifood systems
In Africa, women face several challenges that undermine their engagement in agrifood systems, particularly when it comes to entrepreneurship and agribusiness. The report identifies access to land, finance and business opportunities, education and information, energy and water, time use and labor constraints, and poor nutrition and health as key obstacles hindering women from exercising full agency and participation in food systems.
Women often face socioeconomic and legal barriers to secure land tenure, which can keep them in poverty and unable to reap the benefits of agricultural productivity and trade. Formal financial services fail to both address challenges the agricultural sector faces and offer products that serve women in Africa’s agrifood systems, which leaves many unable to obtain capital to support their agribusinesses.
Education expands opportunities for women and can enable them to pursue more remunerative roles within agrifood systems. While girls’ school enrollment rates have risen in Africa over the past two decades, they are still more likely to drop out of school due to a number of obstacles, including harmful social norms, costs of schooling and gender-based violence.
Energy and water access can reduce women’s labor and time constraints while offering the potential for higher incomes, but low levels of electricity and clean water across Africa jeopardize women’s security and ability to pursue more productive activities in agrifood systems. Additionally, unequal care and other household responsibilities further hinder women’s time use and constrain the choices they can make in agrifood systems.
These systemic inequalities also mean that African women and girls are more likely to be malnourished and exposed to numerous health and safety risks within agrifood systems activities, which undermine their capacity to benefit from and advance food system transformation. These obstacles are further compounded by climate change, making women and girls even more vulnerable to the negative impacts of changing weather patterns or extreme weather events than men.
Policy innovations to advance gender equality in Africa’s agrifood systems
Despite the many challenges holding women back, there is some reason for optimism: to address these barriers and drawing on the experience of four African countries, the report by the Malabo Montpellier Panel details a set of recommendations that African governments and other key stakeholders in the agriculture sector can deploy to ensure women benefit equally from Africa’s rapidly transforming food systems.
Increasing women’s political leadership and the representation of women in agrifood science and research can ensure their intelligence and perspectives are harnessed in developing food systems solutions. Another innovation pertains to employing more women as agriculture extension agents to ensure female farmers have equal access to the productive technologies and information ag-extension officers provide.
Governments can leverage digital technologies to close the gender gap in agricultural productivity, which can help boost national income and gross domestic product (GDP). Improved storage and agro-processing capacities, along with labor-saving technologies and relevant training, can reduce the burden of work on women and allow them to pursue high-value-adding activities that offer higher incomes. Strengthening rural transport and storage infrastructure, along with improving market access and protections for female traders, can bolster women’s ability to trade, earn profits and contribute more equally to economic development.
Providing accessible, gender-sensitive messaging and nutrition education can equip women with the information and resources to provide nutritional diets for themselves and their children. Equally important, policy and programmatic interventions must sensitize boys and men to the challenges women and girls face and the benefits of gender equality to promote behavioral change that addresses unequal power dynamics and harmful social norms.
The report also highlights four systematically selected countries — Ethiopia, Ghana, Rwanda and Togo — that have implemented policies and institutional innovations that have demonstrably improved women’s empowerment in food systems.
In Ethiopia, the federal government has taken steps to expand women’s access to agricultural extension services through decentralization initiatives that help bring services closer to households, and by increasing the number of development agents available at local training centers to offer agricultural extension services, particularly to female farmers.
The Ministry of Food and Agriculture in Ghana supports rural female farmers through its Savannah Zone Agricultural Productivity Project, which provides a mix of technology extension and infrastructure development projects to increase productivity and raise the incomes of 50,000 smallholder farmers, half of whom are women.
Rwanda’s 2019 Land Policy, 2021 Land Law and Land Tenure Regularization (LTR) Program have all served to enshrine land rights and enforce protection of these rights with equal protection for women and men. As a result, 25% of registered land is owned by women, and 77% of female-led households have the right to sell or use their land as collateral.
The Government of Togo has expanded women’s access to finance through its National Fund for Inclusive Finance, which provides loans and credit to women at lower interest rates to enable them to invest in their businesses and other income-generating activities.
The experiences of these countries offer insights into how measures to increase women’s participation in food systems may be replicated and scaled within institutions, policies and programs across Africa.
Africa has made significant strides in women’s empowerment over the last decade. However, in recent years, progress has been hampered by the COVID-19 pandemic and a resurgence of conflict in several countries, along with harmful social norms and discriminatory systems in
some countries. If African countries are to achieve agrifood systems transformation, they must provide the resources and structures needed to reduce inequality and empower women in agrifood systems to make their choices. By doing so, African countries can unlock the immense potential of women in the agricultural sector and beyond. As the continent gears up to define the post-Malabo agenda, now is an opportune time to ensure that women — and youth — have the agency to actively shape the agrifood systems of tomorrow.
By Funke Aderonmu and Katrin Glatzel