Improving Africa's food-security, one woman at a time
Food-security expert Jemimah Njuki explains why women are poised to take a leading role in Africa's agriculture industry
Posted by Niki Wilson on March 8, 2018
Ask Jemimah Njuki how to solve some of the biggest issues in African food security, and she’ll give you one word: women.
“Women carry much of the production burden,” says Njuki, a senior program specialist at IDRC who oversees a portfolio of projects on food security, gender equality and the empowerment of women in agriculture. “Yet they face major hurdles in achieving meaningful roles in leadership and along the food-production chain. We need to change the way we think about the whole global food system, so that women become more central to it and benefit equally.”
Here, Njuki makes a case for more woman-led research and discusses innovative solutions to the big issues of labour burden and harmful gender norms.
On the importance of women being involved in food-security research
Here’s what can happen when women aren’t involved in decisions about what food-security problems receive research support. It could be easy, for instance, to favour crops that make a lot of money from foreign trade. This is the case in Malawi, where they grow a lot of tobacco and the majority of profits go to men. Women, however, have much more control over a crop such as beans, which is a key crop for local markets, domestic food and nutrition security. Women researchers are more likely to understand this nuance because it’s part of their lived experience. Knowing this, they can place more attention on crops that empower women and increase their income.
On alleviating the burden of unpaid work
Women in sub-Saharan Africa spend about 40 billion hours a year collecting firewood to cook food. This is time they could use for gainful employment, education, leisure, which is important for health, or to advance themselves in whatever way they want. A lot of this unpaid work leaves women without those choices.
One of the projects IDRC funded to alleviate some of that burden is the development of pre-cooked beans. Women use a lot of firewood and water to cook beans — it takes about three hours to put them on the table. These new beans are made in a factory and are almost ready to eat. They are available as a dried good, and women can put them on the table in 10 to15 minutes.
In addition to saving time, women can also now sell the beans to the factory. It took some work to create this market. Women needed access to new varieties of beans, and to credit so that they could purchase the seed. They had to organize themselves to produce enough to supply the market. We partnered with the Community Enterprises Development Organisation in Uganda, which worked with 25,000 farmers, 52 per cent of whom were women, to produce enough beans to supply to the factory. These women have increased their income by more than 30 per cent.
On changing gender norms
In many countries and cultures there are entrenched gender norms around how food is allocated and shared. In some cultures, women eat last, or are not allowed to eat certain foods.
Gender norms also affect the roles women take on in food production and allocation, and can leave them at a disadvantage. For example, in Malawi and Zambia, there is a very clear division of roles in the fisheries sector. Men go out to fish, and women buy the fish from them to process and trade. But this creates a power imbalance; there have been cases of men wanting to be paid in sex.
To address that imbalance issue with the men, IDRC worked with a company that uses drama techniques to change norms and behaviour. As a result, we’ve seen the attitudes of men changing, and the cost of purchasing came down.
Men are seeing that when they work together with women as equals — when women participate in making decisions — their households improve and they make better investments in nutrition and education.
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This is part of an ongoing series of stories on international development projects supported by Canada’s International Development Research Centre, presented in partnership with Canadian Geographic. The stories appear online once a month at idrc.canadiangeographic.ca.
The International Development Research Centre has been a key part of Canada's aid program since 1970, and invests in knowledge, innovation and solutions to improve lives and livelihoods in the developing world. Learn more at idrc.ca.