Africa’s GDP is now growing faster than that of any other continent. When many people think about the engines that are driving that growth, they imagine commodities such as oil, gold and cocoa, or maybe industries such as banking and telecommunications.
But as for me, I think of a woman named Joyce Sandir.
Joyce is a farmer who grows bananas, vegetables and maize on a small plot of land in rural Tanzania. When I met her in 2012, she had just harvested her first crop of maize grown from a seed that was specifically adapted for Tanzania’s climate. Even during a bad crop year that caused many of Joyce’s vegetables to wither and die, her maize crop flourished. Without it, her family might have risked going hungry. Instead, the maize harvest ensured that Joyce’s family had enough to eat – and even enough extra income for Joyce to pay her children’s school fees.
As Joyce’s story demonstrates, agriculture is crucial to the future of Africa. Farmers make up 70 percent of the workforce in the African continent. They are the foundation of its economy and the key to triggering broader growth on the continent. Research shows that increasing agricultural productivity is the most effective way to reduce poverty in sub-Saharan Africa.
In fact, agriculture offers the continent its best opportunity to turn a vicious cycle of poverty into a virtuous cycle of development. That is why leaders and policymakers from across the continent have declared 2014 Africa’s Year of Agriculture and Food Security.
Joyce Sandir’s story is relevant for another reason, too. She is important to Africa’s future not only because she is a farmer, but also because she is a woman.
At the Gates Foundation, of which I am a co-chair, I have spend a lot of my time understanding the many ways that women and girls have helped drive development forward: by investing in nutrition, basic health and education of their children – and also by providing farm labor. What I am now learning is that if Africa hopes to spark an agricultural transformation, countries will first need to remove one of the main barriers holding the agricultural sector back, namely a pervasive gender gap.
This gap is not about the number of women who are farmers. In fact, roughly half of Africa’s farmers happen to be women. The gap is one of productivity. Across the continent, farms controlled by women tend to produce less per hectare than the farms that are controlled by men.
The world has had evidence of this gender gap since at least 2011. However, there has been only limited data about its scope, shape and causes. To help us better understand the problem, the World Bank and the ONE Campaign recently conducted an unprecedented analysis of the challenges that are facing female farmers.
Their report highlights one stark fact from the start: The gender gap is real, and in some cases, it is extreme. When we compare male and female farmers with similar land sizes across similar settings, the productivity gap can be as high as 66 percent, as it is, for example, in Niger.
Previously, experts believed that women’s farms produced less because women have less access to inputs such as fertilizer, water and even information. But we now know that the story is much more complicated than that. With the new data in hand, we can see that, surprisingly, the productivity gap persists even when women have equal access to inputs. The precise reasons vary from one country to another – but many of them stem from entrenched cultural norms that prevent women from achieving their full potential.
For example, the report found that women face obstacles mobilizing the labor they need to help their farms flourish. Women usually have more child care and household responsibilities than men, which make it difficult for them to devote as much time to farm work, or even to supervise hired labor.
The problem is compounded by the fact that women are also likely to have less income to hire laborers in the first place.
Fortunately, the new data do not just map the complexity and depth of the problem; they also point to concrete opportunities to develop gender-responsive policies that will help unlock the promise of all of Africa’s farmers.
In some places, that may mean teaching agricultural extension workers how to make their messages more relevant to female audiences or encouraging them to visit when women are most likely to be at home. In other places, it may mean increasing women’s access to markets, or introducing labor-saving tools to help them get the highest yield from their land.
It may also require establishing community child care centers, so that women farmers have the option to spend more time farming. In every case, it will require African policymakers to start recognizing female farmers as the essential economic partners that they are.
This June, leaders from all over Africa will meet in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea, to set the agenda for agricultural policy in the next decade. If Africa’s agricultural sector is to achieve its promise – and if Africa’s economic growth is to continue – policymakers should take into account the needs of farmers such Joyce Sandir. Hers is a success story that can – and must – be replicated across the continent.
Melinda Gates is the co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with Project Syndicate © (www.project-syndicate.org).