Shane Heywood

Musings on market-oriented approaches to International Development

From Invisible to Visible: Empowering Female Farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa

What if you found yourself guilty of a foible so evident in the actions of others? What if in trying to enable others to achieve growth, you find that it is actually you who needed development? What if you found out you needed to listen more, and talk less?

I have long recognized the unique challenges that women face across the developing world. I also recognize the presence of paternalism in a Western context, and appreciate how this dynamic may perpetuate itself in development. Yet, I’ve never been one to play as much of an extraordinarily keen ear to concerns of feminine and gender in development as I should. In my quasi-apathy to the cause, I never expected to be a possible perpetrator. Interestingly enough, it is another male who inspired this bout of self-awareness.

Partly in honour of Mother’s day, I will make one small step towards change. In this post, I will do two things. One, build upon my gender/feminist inspired growth by starting with a different approach than planned for putting forward ideas to empower smallholder female farmers in Africa. Second, follow up on a previous post which highlighted some challenges female farmers face, by providing thoughts on possible interventions.

I will probably not do a perfect job of avoiding paternalism. That is okay. Development, like many aspects of life, is far from a Hollywood ending, and is rather messy. Yet, we can still take measures to improve livelihoods, and this is my humble contribution to the cause.


Putting myself in her shoes, what exactly is it that female farmer wants?

Before making recommendations on what I think is best, the conversation first needs to start with the famers. What do women want in order to better manage their farms, make better income, and become better farmers?

This week, I was at my firm’s field day: an event where we show farmers demonstration plots of maize seed, explain the benefits of hybrid seed, and give away samples. Incognito, I took a photo of this farmer (below), picking up single maize seeds that had fallen from the sample given to other farmers. In other words, she was walking around, picking up maize, grain by grain by grain.

It is with farmers like her the conversation must begin.

Support for Growing Higher Value Crops

Faming can be, at times, an arduous life. It makes sense, then, to ensure that the effort put forward is rewarded to the greatest deal possible. Often, farmers grow products simply because their parents did it, or due to a low-entry barrier for growing that crop. Yet, if everyone is growing, harvesting and selling the same product at the same time, the income from such an enterprise is likely to be less than impressive.

What maybe helpful is a support network – training, access to credit, storage facilities – that would enable female farmers to grow and harvest a more profitable crop, like Coffee, that yields more incomes from sales (versus conventional products) in the market.

Building upon an insight in a McKinsey article on how to encourage agricultural productivity in Africa, a focus on the end market (from the farming stage) as part of this intervention is critical. By understanding what key buyers of coffee – Starbucks, or firms like Nestle – seek, the farmer can ensure to grow product at the right quality, with the right practices.

Establishing a Clear Role for the Private Sector

For-profit firms in agri-business, like Western Seed Company, can play a valuable and influential role in empowering African female farmers. Outside of providing quality inputs (such as seed, fertilizer, etc.) and training retailers (who will pass information on to farmers) on appropriate agronomic techniques – the private sector can involve itself further in two ways.

First, work with NGOs that support smallholder farmers. Many organizations, working in the most rural of regions, support farmers by providing training, providing links to the market, and connecting farmers with other farmers. By providing these NGOs with training support, input for farmers, and linking NGOs with agri-business retailers, for-profit firms can further advance of the status of African farmers.

Clearly, none of these solutions are a panacea to the challenges faced by female farmers. However, if implemented, they may help enable a positive impact on the well-being of female farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa.


One comment on “From Invisible to Visible: Empowering Female Farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa

  1. Grace
    May 17, 2011

    I work with a grassroots organization in Kenya. It is a gender-focused African women’s farming cooperative – It’s called the Nina Agricultural Initiative. Our partner organization,, recently featured this post on our Facebook page. Could we interface? The women are always looking to network with other people and farming organizations. My email is

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This entry was posted on May 7, 2011 by in Agriculture, Business, International Development, Women and tagged , , .

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