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Business and Women: emerging themes in farming

17 May 2013

I came away from the Grow Africa Investment Forum in Cape Town recently with two words echoing in my mind. Business and women: the two themes highlighted by speaker after speaker during a packed 24 hour agenda.

This was the second time that Grow Africa had staged an investment forum during the World Economic Summit on Africa, bringing together many of the government, private sector and civil society organisations who are involved in eight country-level Grow Africa partnerships. The partnerships aim to accelerate investment and bring about transformative change in African agriculture in support of NEPAD’s Comprehensive African Agricultural Development Programme, with the focus very much on smallholder agriculture.

Why don’t I mention farmers being part of the forum? When it comes to agriculture, farmers are a fairly fundamental part of the private sector, are they not? And we are often guilty of neglecting that in the many agriculture-focused conferences and meetings and initiatives. This ties exactly to the point that many of the speakers were making. “Agriculture is not development, it is business” almost became a chorus. “Farmers are the private sector.”

There is no doubt that increased yields, growth in production, and growth in farmer profits are needed to achieve lasting improvements in food security and livelihoods. We want to see more small-scale farms operating as farming businesses, connected to markets and part of growing economies - rather than subsistence farms being left behind as economies grow around them.

But we mustn’t forget that the business of agriculture also has a huge influence on human development and on the environment. Which brings me on to my second takeout: women.

The theme for dinner on Thursday evening was Celebrating African Women in Agriculture, and we heard from inspirational female leaders: Joyce Banda, President of Malawi, Nkosazana Diamini-Zuma, Chairperson of the AU, Philo Nshangano, who owns a dairy farming business in Uganda, and Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Nigerian Minister for Finance. All made strong statements on the role of women:  “We need women to crack the agricultural growth challenge in Africa.”

The call to action is to invest in women; and to increase their economic inclusion in agriculture. According to the FAO’s 2012 State of Agriculture report, women make up 43% of the agricultural labour force worldwide, and 50% in Africa. Yet available data shows they are significantly more constrained then men, owning 5%-15% of landholdings, and receiving only 5% of extension support.

Of course, investing more in women is partly about good business sense, as all the speakers highlighted. But there is also a strong social development angle to investing in women in Africa, where they are largely responsible for family nutrition and health. According to the FAO, women in Sub-Saharan Africa head 60% of households, produce 80% of basic foodstuffs, and are almost exclusively responsible for the nutrition of their children. So income in the hands of women is income that will supports child nutrition and health, nurturing the next generation.

Farming as business is critical. But real agricultural transformation is also about how we enable those farming businesses to positively impact the wellbeing of people and the environment. Finding ways to empower women is just one of the ways to do that.

Ms. Okonjo-Iweala spoke about the approach her department has taken to improving women’s empowerment, setting aside a fund to provide budgetary incentives to other departments to promote women’s (economic) inclusion. This seems like an idea to think more about within Grow Africa , as we work on how to increase the economic involvement of women in the business of agriculture.



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