Women, farming, and climate in Africa: A global(ly overlooked) problem
Sub-Saharan Africa, where women farmers lack access to finance, technology, and land tenure, hosts over a quarter of the word’s hungry. Dr Tricia Glazebrook of Washington State University argues that ‘sustainable development’ is a flawed concept driven by global economics focused on unsustainable growth. In Africa, women’s farming is systematically undervalued. Women rely on seasonal rains that escalating climate impacts have made sporadic and unpredictable. To avoid crop failure, some turn to drought-resistant but nutrient-poor rice. Failure to prioritise women farmers’ needs in international finance mechanisms is exacerbating humanitarian hunger crises already well underway.
After decades of painstaking improvement, 2020 marks the first year in over two decades that extreme poverty (ie, living on less than $1.90 US dollars per day) has increased; the culprit is climate change largely driven by the global North. More than a quarter of the world’s hungry live in sub-Saharan Africa, where approximately 500 million women are farmers growing primarily to feed their families. Many of these women are the faces of the ‘feminisation of poverty’; that is, the female proportion of global poverty is increasing.
Women’s farming is marginalised and hampered by persistent social inequalities and biases. African women have poor access to bank accounts, credit, and loans. They rarely have land tenure, so cannot control the land they farm. With limited access to resources, their standard tool is a hand hoe. They make fertiliser from animal dung they collect, but even this can be taken by the landowner. They can usually offer only a meal and promise of a crop-portion to a bullock driver who turns the soil to prepare for planting. So they often have a shorter growing system because they plant late, after wealthier customers. They typically work at least 10 hours per week more than men.
Dr Tricia Glazebrook (Washington State University) and collaborators in Ghana, Canada and Texas, worked to address these issues with support from the United States Department of Agriculture, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, Dalhousie University, the University of North Texas, Washington State University and its Center for Arts and Humanities. They are unpicking the complex web of global factors at play, and offering recommendations for new ways forward.
A global(ly overlooked) problem
Africa was the only continent that failed to meet the goal of 50% poverty reduction by 2015, as set out in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Dr Glazebrook and her collaborators contend that, as things stand, the continent is set to repeat this failure in 2030 – the target date for completion of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that replaced the MDGs. They point to the flawed and failed concept of ‘sustainable development’, which is heavily driven by global economics and a focus on growth, to the detriment of ecosystem stability. In particular, they find that neoliberal policies and programmes aimed at ‘sustainable development’ can systematically overlook the role of women in maintaining family and community food supplies because the women grow food for the home rather than to be sold in a market. Metrics such as ‘economic growth’ and gross domestic product (GDP) can be misleading. In 2017, increases in both were hailed as great progress for Africa, but they did not improve the situation for many Africans. Instead, much of this growth reflected oil industry revenue.
Another significant issue is the substantial debt that continues to paralyse African countries as they struggle to repay loans from organisations and countries in the global North. Meanwhile, multinationals investing in agriculture in Africa typically export to the global North, while their ‘land grabs’ commonly displace women farmers. In other words, increased exports that raise the GDP make a country look richer but actually increase the lived experience of poverty on the ground, especially for women farmers. Even the much-praised SDGs under-serve women farmers. While the Gender Equality Goal recognises inequities, women farmers’ needs intersect across the Goals but are not explicitly addressed. For example, the Goal on water discusses women’s hygiene but not crop irrigation, and the Goal on hunger neglects connections between poverty, gender, and food security.
Food security and climate change
The effects of climate change (including changes to the water cycle, extreme weather, drought, floods, etc) are being felt around the world, but nowhere more keenly than Africa. With only 4% of African farms irrigated, women farmers overwhelmingly rely on the rains to provide precious and much-needed water. With climate change, however, rain has become sporadic and unpredictable. Traditional crops (eg, millet and peanuts) need virtually daily rain. To reduce the risk of crop failure, women have turned to drought-resistant rice. Millet contains high levels of protein and calcium that are important for growing children and pregnant or lactating women. Peanuts are also a rich protein source needed for brain and muscle development. Rice provides little dietary value.
Overlooking women farmers’ needs within agricultural policy and finance in the face of worsening climate crises has caused humanitarian hunger crises for which the international community provides little support. While women farmers of the global South are battling the very real and quickly escalating effects of climate change, the global North is locked in an ideological and often existential battle over whether or not anthropogenic climate change is even real. The lived experience of women farmers and their struggle to adapt is unfolding at the intersection of science, policy, and capital. Scientists seek to understand and address climate change, while corporations seek protection for their investments in fossil-fuel powered production and infrastructure. Policymakers, caught in this stalemate between climate science and corporate lobbying, seek to respond by managing emissions reduction and building adaptation capacity, while also maintaining economic growth. In the meantime, women try to feed their children.
Climate justice, which is desperately needed in sub-Saharan Africa, depends not only on acceptance of climate change, but translation of this acceptance into action. Against this background, the policy stalemate can only be overcome by supplementing science with non-expert voices through the process of indeterminacy: that is, policymakers must consider both climate science and evidence from lived experience. Africa generates a meagre 3.7% of global fossil-fuel emissions yet suffers a higher proportion of impacts than other continents. It is irresponsible for governments in the global North to deny climate change rather than taking responsibility for practices that globally benefit the North at the expense of the South. The public in the global North needs a better understanding of climate science to call for government and policy action on climate threats now evident in wildfires and floods.
Gender inequity in Ghana
The West African nation of Ghana offers a case in point, and has been a focus of the research conducted by Dr Glazebrook and her collaborators. Dr Glazebrook has spent more than a decade talking to stakeholders in Ghana, from national and regional government departments and policymakers, to interviews and focus groups with women farmers, to performing surveys of rural areas. A little over half of the Ghanaian workforce are farmers, and together they produce 90% of the food consumed in the country. Of 58,000 km2 of cultivated land (a little under a quarter of the country), just 2% is irrigated; as such, famers typically rely on a single annual growing season fit around the seasonal rains. Women represent 39% of the farmers but provide in different regions of Ghana somewhere between 55% and 87% of the food. Lack of clarity over this number is symbolic of the invisibility of subsistence economics (typically the realm of women) in a reporting system focused on market-based indicators.
When Ghana submitted its 2003 Poverty Reduction Strategy to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the gender equity focus was based on substantial engagement with women farmers. The IMF rejected its ‘narrow’ neglect of market factors. With the threat of losing World Bank support, which is contingent on gaining IMF approval, the revised submission addressed gender primarily in terms of education. While this approach has certainly led to increases in women’s education, most of these young women seek employment, not farm work. This has left an ageing, economically invisible cohort of women farmers, who still lack access to finance, technology, and control over land tenure. The result: today approximately 1.2 million Ghanaians suffer food insecurity and many trained in business remain unemployed.
Governance and corporate policy change
Without effective interventions to address the roots of gender inequality, women farmers’ situations are unlikely to improve. Around the world, effective examples of change are almost exclusively the result of grassroots and community driven initiatives; in particular, by working as collectives, women often succeed where men’s groups have failed. To have a true impact, these successes need to be repeated at scale. It is within the power of international policy, aid, and finance systems to request that nation-states improve women farmers’ access to productivity-increasing resources, including credit, finance, and land tenure. A sustainable future demands governance and corporate policy changes aimed at creating a new global paradigm that values women’s food-security labour.
Based on their research, Dr Glazebrook and her collaborators suggest a four-pronged approach for addressing the issues that Ghanaian women famers face: (1) gender implementation of United Nations Climate Adaptation Fund and Green Climate Fund to support women’s subsistence farming in the global South, with a focus on de-emphasising corporate interests; (2) expansion of existing school-based education programmes for women and girls to include capacity building and climate adaption; (3) instigation of policy training for government workers at national, regional, district, and local levels, with a focus on climate action; and (4) development of economic pathways based on gender by international organisations such as the IMF to consider metrics such as livelihood value and subsistence agricultural productivity, maternal and infant mortality, biodiversity, and other factors related to well-being, instead of simply focusing on per capita income to measure a population’s wealth.
- Glazebrook, T, (2015). Climate adaptation in the global South: Funding women’s farming. In: Contemporary Perspectives on Eco-Feminism, eds. Mary Phillips and Nick Rumens. London: Routledge, 111–131.
- Glazebrook, T, Goldsby, M, (2018). Indeterminacy in science: Climate justice and food security in the global South. The Significance of Indeterminacy: Perspectives from Asian and Continental Philosophy, eds. Robert H Scott and Greg Moss. New York: Routledge, 148–167.
- Opoku, E, Glazebrook, T, (2018). Gender, agriculture, and climate policy in Ghana. Environmental Ethics (Special issue: African Environmental Philosophy, eds. T Glazebrook and A Kola-Olusanya), 40(4), 365–80. doi.org/10.5840/enviroethics201840435
- Glazebrook, T, Opoku, E, (2020). Gender and Sustainability: Learning from Women’s Farming in Africa. Sustainability, 12, 10483. doi.org/10.3390/su122410483
Tricia Glazebrook’s interdisciplinary research explores climate impacts, women farmers’ adaptations, and gender inequality in sub-Saharan Africa.
United States Department of Agriculture; Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada; Dalhousie University; University of North Texas; Washington State University, and the Center for Arts and Humanities
Michael Goldsby, Franciska Isaaka,
Samantha Noll, Emmanuela Opoku, Rebecca Tiessen
Tricia Glazebrook is a Professor at Washington State University (PhD, University of Toronto) and Deputy Chair of Gender CC, a UNFCCC member organisation with multiple projects in the global South. She publishes interdisciplinary research in science and humanities journals on women’s farming in Africa/Ghana and climate impacts, adaptations, and finance.
School of Politics, Philosophy, and Public Affairs, Washington State University, Washington, USA 99164-4880
Creative Commons Licence(CC BY-NC-ND 4.0) This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Creative Commons License
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