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Haven Ley

Haven Ley states how a better gender balance should be supported (© Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation)
Haven Ley states how a better gender balance should be supported
© Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

A woman's touch to improving smallholder agriculture

As senior program officer in agricultural development for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Haven Ley has responsibility for providing grants for projects working with women in agriculture. Whilst women produce the majority of food in smallholder production systems, they lack status and access to key resources. Haven provides her viewpoint on how a better gender balance should be supported.

The majority of farmers in the developing world are women working on plots of less than two hectares; it is women who produce food for most of the world's poor people. It is therefore a tragedy, given the widespread, ongoing struggle for food security, that these women are on average 20-30 per cent less productive than their male counterparts growing crops on similar plots nearby. Evidence for this comes from an FAO report released in 2011, and it represents an enormous missed opportunity.

The causes of women's lower productivity are numerous: poorer access to land titles and credit, leading to lower investment in high yielding varieties and fertiliser are all key factors. There are also constraints at community and even state level, which deny women sufficient status or voice to demand the resources they need. Yet while there are no silver bullets, there are interventions, institutions and many individual women that are changing the game in some of these areas.

Our focus

At Gates, we want to focus on two key areas for women in agricultural development. Firstly we want women to influence the research and development agenda. This might mean, for example, prioritising work on cereals that cook in a shorter time, or taste better. Further downstream, we want to make sure that our grantees are developing gender responsive, smart, on-farm strategies that help women access the resources they need, so that they really benefit from these projects.

We also believe strongly in giving women a voice and a platform. Through the AWARD programme, we support the development of women researchers who can testify to the power of research and development in changing farmers' lives. Lindiwe Sibanda of FANRPAN* has been very active, most recently at the Durban summit on climate change. She is a powerful voice for smallholders throughout Africa and in supporting women to demand better services. So we are investing in her and her organisation so that she gets the platform and visibility she needs to really speak out on behalf of women.

Hilary Clinton has also won our support, for her strong narrative in raising awareness of the value of investing in women which is so critical to food security and production in the developing world. The Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves is a public-private initiative, supported by Clinton, to help women reduce their time collecting fuelwood, so they can invest more productively in their farms. This is just one example of several scalable solutions now gaining prominence that have not been in the minds of donors, policymakers or even the wider public in the past.

The power of ownership

Women's ownership and control of assets is another area where much action is taking place. Donors are interested in how this impacts on household production, as well as women's self-confidence and influence within the household. Heifer International, for example, gives women a cow. This helps to keep families fed and healthy and any surplus milk earns income that can be invested in children's education or other needs.

For a long time we lacked the data to verify the value of these types of initiatives, but that evidence is becoming ever stronger. BRAC in Bangladesh is a good example, where women have been given a number of assets, including dairy cows, treadle pumps and poultry flocks. These small assets can bring significant returns in agricultural productivity. As well as gaining immediate food or income, women have also used such assets as collateral to access banking facilities or credit, further boosting their earning potential and status within the household.

Men and women moving together

Regarding land, we have excellent data from different countries that when women own or have secure access to land they are much more likely to adopt new technologies and best practices. They are also much more likely to treat their soils better because they can think about a long-term growth strategy for their farm, so overall yields increase. And yet while land access for women is on the books in many countries, in practice this is often negated by customary law.

Similarly, when women acquire assets the end result is not always what we would hope. In Afghanistan, for example, an FAO intervention specifically targeted at women householders provided each with ten pullets, some vaccines and a small henhouse to start a micro-scale poultry unit. Groups of women would select a widow, who was able to travel more freely, to market the eggs and as groups started to make money, they built up their stock. However, it was observed that when flock sizes grew to around 100 birds, men in the household would usually take over the business, realising it was a profitable commercial enterprise.

As a result, FAO and others have learnt that from day one, you also have to work with men; you should not have a 'women only' targeted programme. Men need a role and need to understand the commercial viability to give them a stake in the game. So the best practise I know of to date is to bring the whole household along.

* Food, Agriculture and Natural Resource Policy Analysis Network

Date published: January 2012


Have your say

Haven excellent viewpoint. lets look at working with all gen... (posted by: Nellie Oduor)


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