By Sarah Lewis-Hammond
You can’t have biological diversity in the food system without social and cultural diversity, too.
Judith Harry says that women are not supposed to be leaders, or at least that’s what people think. She is a groundnut farmer in Mchinji, Malawi, and a single mother raising her teenage daughter and two teenage orphans. She is also the Chair of the Mchinji Area Small Holders Farmers Association (MASFA), a cooperative of smallholder farmers, and has overseen dramatic changes in her community.
When Harry began growing groundnuts, the vendors she sold to used loaded scales in order to pay too little for her crop. Fed up with the situation, she contacted the National Smallholder Farmers Association of Malawi, who subsequently helped the farmers of the town set up MASFA, which in turn partnered with fair trade organisations, including Twin Trading, to supply UK supermarkets with nuts. She now produces over four metric tonnes of nuts a year, and is paid appropriately.
For Harry, “becoming a chairperson of the association, which comprises women and men, acts as encouragement to other women to know that it is possible for women to be a leader of a group.”
Across the developing world, around 43 percent of the agricultural workforce is female. Yet, typically women have considerably less access to resources, such as credit, fertilisers or seeds, than their male equivalents, seriously diminishing their ability to produce food. Closing this gender gap, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation says, could increase the productivity of land being farmed by up to 30 percent, helping to feed a further 150 million hungry people.
Nor would additional crop yield be the only benefit. “With the fair trade premium, we have built a hospital for pregnant women and childbirth,” explains Rosemary Kadzitche, a peanut farmer with MASFA. And since it is typically women who send children to school, buy for the home and care for their neighbours, the more income they have, the better off their communities will be.
It sounds straightforward enough. But practical ideas to improve agriculture too often ignore the cultural factors at the root of the problem, says Liz Hosken of the Gaia Foundation, an organisation that works to “regenerate cultural and biological diversity.” One example is the arrival of cash crops, which meant that the land women used to grow food for their families passed to the hands of men. Communities became dependent on growing crops to get cash to buy food, which is ok as long as the crops flourish and sell, and there is food to buy.
In Kamburu, Kenya, Hosken explains, families began growing tea out of desperation for money, but then price fluctuations and drought meant they had no income, and because they had given over all their land for tea, there was no food. The Gaia Foundation and Institute for Culture and Ecology helped families put their own food into production again. Along the way, they discovered that the older women in the community had a huge amount of knowledge about agricultural systems and seeds, but that this resource had been sidelined. Fortunately, it wasn’t too late. “The men in the community demarcated more land for the women because they realised that they would grow critical nutritional crops. It’s the start of a shift: people are recognising the importance of the role of women.”
Mpatheleni Makaulule is the founder of The Mupo Foundation, which works to preserve and revive cultural diversity in South Africa, and also works in collaboration with the Gaia Foundation and the African Biodiversity Network. She explains the fundamental relationship of women to seed the source of all food crops among her people – the VhaVenda tribe of northern South Africa. “When the seed is going to be planted, it’s the women who select the seed. It’s the women who store that seed. It’s the women who take that seed out of storage and give it to others to go to plant. When the seed is germinating, it’s the women who take care of it. Seed is sacred: it’s our connection to the creator. In our custom, women are the mediator between us and the creator. When we connect to our creator, the seed, land and water are the elements which connect us. The elder women have to take care of the seed until it is harvested. When a baby is born, women gather seed for the ceremony.”
While a return to traditional gender roles may sound regressive, Christine Wilson, Head of Youth and Society at the British Council, maintains that it’s important to work with the strengths of a community, and not against them. “We have to be realistic,” she says. “In the majority of homes around the world, women do still hold the predominately caring role and are leaders of the family. I think that’s where the power lies, and it should be used to great advantage.”
The potential, says Louise Nicholls, Head of Responsible Sourcing in Foods for Marks and Spencer, is not just local change but a real shift in the food system. “Women tend to see issues holistically,” she argues. “They take action not just in workplace but at home and in the wider community. Empowering women through education, healthcare and equal access to resources enables more rapid and more sustainable change.”
Oxfam works with private sector partners to show that addressing equality issues can lead to higher returns. For example, when the Colombian dairy company Alpina wanted to improve the quality of its raw milk, Oxfam demonstrated that women were responsible for cleaning the utensils on the farms in its supply chain. Alpina agreed to invest in hygiene training, formalising their role in quality control. This increased the women’s income and led to an increased marginal return for the company.
As Nicholls maintains, “We need women playing a role at all levels, from product development to government policy – alongside their role as consumers, making choices for themselves and their families. Many women do not realise the huge impact they could have on society and the environment.”
Sarah Lewis-Hammond is freelance journalist specialising in food and energy.