We must recognise the empowering role of women in transforming food systems

  • 30 Oct 2023
  • 3 Mins Read
  • 〜 by Amath Pathe Sene

Key facts 

  • There are about 2.1 million rural women, a quarter of the world’s population
  • Women make up 43% of the world’s agricultural workforce, with 50% of them concentrated in Eastern and Southern African countries 
  • Less than 15% of landholders worldwide are women
  • Closing the gender gap in agriculture can improve productivity by 30% and could improve the livelihood of over 180 million people 

Go to any rural market, you’ll find women with baskets full of fresh produce and homemade goods for sale. Since time immemorial, rural women have been the primary food producers, taking charge of planting, harvesting, and processing staple foods, fruits, vegetables, and livestock management. They have been the custodians of our diets and recipes, ensuring that families and communities have access to nutritious and diverse diets. In many societies, women are the primary vendors at local markets. By selling their produce, they not only contribute to local economies but also ensure many people have access to food.

At the primary family set-up, rural women play a pivotal role in ensuring the nutritional requirements of their families are met. Whereas women play a critical role in making decisions about food purchases and meal preparations, affecting the health and well-being of members of their families, the gender gap limits their access to financing and credit facilities due to cultural and traditional norms. Moreover, the average income of female-headed households is lower than those headed by men, exposing women-headed households to a higher risk of poverty.   

Understanding the role of rural women in food transformation is vital to achieving food security, promoting sustainable agriculture, and ensuring resilient rural communities. The reality is that women perform the bulk of unpaid care and domestic work within families and households in rural areas, and make significant contributions to agricultural production, food security and nutrition, land and natural resource management, and building climate resilience but suffer disproportionately from multi-dimensional poverty. 

As much as they may be as productive and enterprising as their male counterparts, women have less access to land, credit, agricultural inputs, markets, and high-value agri-food chains and obtain lower prices for their crops.

Traditionally, women are the key players in seed preservation and biodiversity, contributing to the adaptation of crops to changing climate conditions and pests. Women have played the role of seed selection which directly promotes the preservation of the world’s genetic seed variety for generations to come.

Apart from primary food production, value addition and processing have also been the role of rural women who have mastered the art of transforming raw food products into consumable and marketable goods for domestic and community use. 

Undisputedly, our rural women have intimate knowledge of local ecosystems and have continuously applied this knowledge in land management, promoting soil health, water conservation and biodiversity.  

As a significant proportion of rural women work as farmers, wage earners and entrepreneurs, their social and economic empowerment can have a powerful impact on productivity and agriculture-led growth. Notably, agriculture remains the most important employment sector for women in developing countries and rural areas; largely falling within the informal economy with little or no social protection and labour rights. Inevitably, this has led to lower standards of living, poorer wages and health and limited access to social services.  For us to win the fight against extreme poverty, hunger and malnutrition, there’s an urgent need to empower women in this sector and attain gender equality.

Empowering rural women means:

  • Closing the gender gap and increasing agricultural production by 30%.
  • More prosperous, healthy and stable societies. 
  • Challenging and changing societal norms that restrict them.
  • Investing in modern tools and technologies to lessen their physical burdens and enhance the productivity of women.
  • Ensuring they have the same access to resources and opportunities as men.
  • Providing them with education and training to further boost their potential.
  • Recognizing and celebrating their immense contributions at all levels

It is critical to remind ourselves that rural women are more than just a statistic and are the guardians of our food traditions, the keepers of our biodiversity, and the pillars of our food systems. Empowering these women is therefore not just the right thing to do; it’s the smart thing to do if we are to accelerate the transformation of Africa’s Food Systems.  

The writer is the Managing Director for Africa Food Systems Forum – AFS