Extending Help to Women Farmers in LDCs

International Monetary Fund. External Relations Dept.
Published Date:
January 1991
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Katrine A. Saito

Throughout the developing world, women have long played a pivotal role in agriculture, both as laborers and decisionmakers. Besides being the main ones responsible for food production—in Sub-Saharan Africa, women account for at least 70 percent of the food staple production—they figure prominently in other agricultural activities, including food processing and marketing, cash cropping, and animal husbandly. Moreover, as more men migrate to cities and other countries for work, increasing numbers of women are becoming heads of households, managing farms on a day-to-day basis.

If these women are to carry out their extensive and multifaceted roles in agriculture and respond to market incentives more efficiently, they need effective agricultural extension services. Yet the evidence clearly shows that, despite a growing awareness of the need to reach women farmers, these services—considered to be a prerequisite for widespread and sustained agricultural development—are generally geared toward male farmers. This is sometimes by design, but more often by default. Bias is evident in the delivery of extension, which is generally provided by male agents to male farmers on the fallacious assumption that the message will “trickle across” to women. Bias is also evident in the message itself, which tends to ignore the unique workload, responsibilities, and constraints facing women farmers.

Troubled by this highly inefficient use of resources, not to mention suboptimal levels of agricultural production, many policymakers and donors—such as the World Bank, which has invested about $2 billion in agricultural extension in 79 countries since the mid-1960s—have begun to work with countries on innovative approaches. Pilot programs now underway are providing useful guidance on how best to fully integrate women into the agricultural extension system and the most likely problems to emerge in different socioeconomic environments. This is a relatively new field and much remains to be learned. Even so, it is possible to craft guidelines for (1) better identifying the information and technology needs of women, thereby helping to develop more appropriate messages for them; and (2) improving the cost-effectiveness of the delivery of these messages. While the recommendations are relevant for most extension systems in use by governments, paras-tatals, and private agencies, particular attention is paid to the “training and visit” system of agricultural extension, favored by the World Bank (see “The World Bank and the training and visit system,” by Joslin Landell-Mills, Finance & Development, June 1983).

Why women farmers need help

After nearly two decades of studies, it is clear that regional differences aside, women provide most of the labor and make many key decisions in agriculture. In Malawi, for example, women perform 50 to 70 percent of all agricultural work and account for 69 percent of all farmers. But women face special constraints in carrying out agricultural activities, making it more difficult for them to operate effectively in factor markets, if they can obtain access at all. As a result, most women have less access to—and higher effective costs for—information, technology, inputs, and credit than men. The end result is depressed productivity.

Land. Typically, women must farm more fragmented, smaller plots than men, and they are less likely to have secure tenure. This acts as a strong disincentive to investing in new techniques. In many parts of the world, land title is in the name of the male head of household, and women are allocated land that is far from their villages and far from other plots they cultivate—posing problems of childcare and transportation.

Technology. Lack of suitable farm and household technology also impairs women’s efficiency, restricts their time, and saps their-energy for participating in extension. In Zambia, weeding can be performed six times faster with animal traction, but few women can afford this technology, and in many cases, cultural traditions discourage its use by women.

Credit. In most of the developing world, women are bypassed by formal credit systems, because of lack of collateral (usually land title), lower levels of numeracy and literacy, lack of information, burdensome bureaucratic procedures, distance and cost of travel to credit institutions, and cultural attitudes. Available credit is also often limited to the production cycle (most women work in processing) and to cash crops for export (which women are less likely to grow). Without credit, women are less likely to be able to afford the inputs recommended by extension agents, if they come into contact with them at all.

Mobility and time. Women tend to be less mobile and enjoy less uncommitted time than men, making it more difficult for them to participate in training courses outside their villages and inhibiting their ability to respond to opportunities. A study from Burkina Faso, for example, shows that women contribute as much time per day to food and cash crop production as men—in addition to food processing and fetching water and fuelwood—with men averaging twice as much time resting. Similarly, surveys from Pakistan reveal that agricultural and household activities typically take up to 12-15 hours of a woman’s day, significantly more than the time spent by men on productive work. In addition, women must contend with less cash for transportation and less likelihood of owning transport. In some countries, sociocultural and religious barriers also limit their mobility.

Cultural norms. In most countries, cultural norms affect interactions between agents and farmers—often, male extension officers may not meet with female farmers—and between male and female farmers. In many parts of South Asia, for example, the strict observance of “purdah” (separation of sexes) results in women remaining in the “inside” labor force. From within the compound, women undertake various agricultural tasks, particularly processing, but cultural conditions make it difficult for male agents to give them advice.

Education. Throughout the developing world, women tend to be less educated than men, severely compromising access to agricultural extension and the ability to comprehend and use technical information. Because of their lower level of education—in most of Africa, the adult male literacy rate is almost twice that of women, and in Bangladesh and India, more than 80 percent of rural women are illiterate compared with 60 percent of rural men—women are less able to respond to written extension messages and, in some cases, cannot be chosen as contact farmers.

Improving the message

Given these gender-related constraints, it is clear that accurate information at the local level—what women farmers do, how they do it, and why they do it—is essential if the research and extension services are to produce and deliver technical advice that is both needed by the farmers and appropriate to their circumstances. Information is needed on the following topics:

• the division of labor between men and women by crops, livestock, and farming operations (this may involve “men’s” versus “women’s” crops—traditionally, cash versus subsistence crops—or complementary roles for the same crop). In the production of irrigated rice in The Gambia, Senegal, and Burkina Faso, for example, women specialize in transplanting, weeding, winnowing, harvesting, and threshing, while men prepare the fields and maintain the irrigation system. In South Asia, caste and class differences tend to be the dominant influences, with women of lower caste generally having more limited access to the factors of production (including water and public land), as well as to extension services and credit;

  • who owns or controls factors of production, crops, or income derived from the sale of produce—women are most likely to invest time and resources in production when they retain control of the harvested crop;
  • the types of women farmers—farm managers in their own right, farm partners with their husbands, or laborers. In parts of South Asia, even women in “landless” households need extension services (“landless” in this context frequently means having a small patch of land that, when intensively cultivated, can contribute significantly to the family’s survival); and
  • geographical variations and local conditions that define production possibilities and constraints. In South Asia, women farmers in the hill and mountain regions of northern India, northern Pakistan, Nepal, and Bhutan need advice that differs sharply from that needed in the tropical plains.

To date, diverse collection methods have proved effective in planning services for female farmers, including seasonal calendars (providing a sense of the farm “enterprise” as well as times of peak labor by gender), seasonal labor profiles, and household recordkeeping. Lengthy costly surveys should be avoided. Indeed, one of the most successful approaches uses the quick, inexpensive, informal survey technique of Rapid Rural Appraisal (which involves local populations in the early discussions and design of projects), combined with a two- to three-day field visit. Another useful technique, requiring only a few hours, is to question carefully selected groups of women farmers, preferably without the inhibiting presence of their husbands and other male authority figures.

All of this information must then be fed into research systems that have the ability to generate new knowledge and techniques to improve productivity and sustain rural families. Linkages with both national and international research institutions must be strengthened, and their research agenda broadened to include crops and livestock produced by women (particularly vegetables and small animals), tasks normally performed by women (such as weeding, food processing, preservation, and storage), and technologies and farming systems suitable to the circumstances of women farmers (such as home gardens or alley cropping). Tools and machines also need to be developed—when possible, produced locally—that are suitable for women (i.e., multifunctional and of appropriate size and strength), and most important, distributed widely.

Transmitting the message

Once the relevant message—which is highly location specific—is formulated, the challenge lies in transmitting it to women farmers. There are many ways to do this without transgressing cultural mores. The answer is to find a method suitable for the local traditional culture, financial and human resources, and institutional arrangements.

Using women extension agents. Whether the gender of the agent matters varies greatly depending on the sociocultural context. Even so, evidence suggests that communication with women farmers is definitely enhanced when female agents are used. But how can the number of women agents be quickly increased? How can they be integrated into the extension system? How can male colleagues be convinced to accept them? How should conflicting family responsibilities be dealt with? And how can adequate logistical support (including transportation) be ensured?

One answer is to sharply boost the number of women in agricultural schools, as these schools will be the main source of trained extension agents—in Africa, only 13 percent of the students are female. To accomplish this, more girls should be enrolled in secondary schools, and agricultural schools should institute targeted growth rates for female enrollment, or economic incentives, such as temporary tuition subsidies. Boarding facilities for female students should be made available (as at Nepal’s Institute of Agriculture and Animal Science), and parents of secondary school girls should be informed of opportunities in agriculture. Admission policies of intermediate agricultural institutions should be reviewed to ensure that female enrollment is encouraged (for example, until 1980, none of the agricultural schools in the Republic of Yemen were open to girls), and the curriculum offered should be the same for both sexes.

Then, to retain women in the extension system, efforts should be made to assure equal treatment with men and accommodate those who are married. This means equal access to staff housing, equipment, and transportation. Moreover, the practice, common in many countries, of expelling women extension agents once they marry or become pregnant, must be stopped. One way of coping with a reluctance of women to accept rural posts if their children attend urban schools is to select new female agents from the local government area where they will serve.

But the training and recruitment process takes time, and in the shorter term, one solution is to redeploy female agents already teaching rural women subjects related to agriculture. In many African countries, home economists constitute a large female professional cadre—Nigeria, for example, has some 4,500, and even Sierra Leone, a much smaller country, has over 200. They are particularly common in former British colonies, where they are known as domestic or home scientists, and some are also trained nutritionists and community development workers. In recent years, a number of countries have begun to experiment with this approach. In Nigeria, home economists with agricultural training have been integrated into the extension service and are working very effectively in the highly successful nationwide Women in Agriculture program.

Given that male agents will remain the norm for many years, efforts must also be made to help men overcome attitudes that can undermine programs—one recent study of five African countries found that most male agents perceived women as wives of farmers, rather than farmers in their own right. Training and supervision is one way. Using women extension agents as the initial contact—to introduce groups of women farmers to male agents—is another. This strategy has worked particularly well in northwestern Cameroon, and a similar approach has been suggested in Bangladesh, where male block supervisors form teams with their female counterparts.

Using women contact farmers and women’s groups. Using farmers’ groups, rather than individuals, as the recipients of extension has been found to be a particularly cost-effective way of reaching farmers, especially women. In many developing countries, there is a long tradition of women forming groups to exchange labor, mobilize savings and credit, provide self-help, and carry out social and ceremonial functions. Such groups offer a channel through which resources and information from government and donors can flow. Indeed, the advantages are numerous: they provide economies of scale through maximizing the farmer-to-agent ratio; they save travel time and increase the time spent on the actual task for the extension agent; they facilitate adoption of new techniques through peer learning (groups can be especially effective in reinforcing knowledge among illiterate women, who can then rely on collective memory); they allow members to pool resources for production or collateral to obtain credit and other inputs; they serve as an effective means for sharing expensive equipment and provide a vehicle for effective large-scale distribution of inputs; and they help lessen the sociocultural difficulties of male/female interaction. In Chile, for example, existing village groups have been carefully selected and successfully used for extension delivery; family groups were found ineffective since women had difficulty speaking up.

Recruiting more women as contact farmers—or links with extension agents—can also be helpful, but at present, the selection criteria—such as the requirement for land ownership in South Asia—often discourage the participation of women. In Kenya, however, the problem has been effectively tackled by encouraging local chiefs, ministers, and political leaders to support such involvement by women at local gatherings and in the media; emphasizing the selection of women farmers during training sessions; and encouraging extension agents to select contact farmers on the basis of merit, rather than patronage.

Improving access to training. A crucial link in the extension chain is making sure that the client is able to receive the message. Faced with dual responsibilities at home and on the farm, women often cannot attend courses at residential farm training centers, even if transportation is provided. It is important, therefore, that training be brought to them. One way is through mobile training courses, but the mass media hold the greatest potential.

Radio has a long history as a communication tool, particularly in agriculture. Its low cost and wide reach make it a relatively simple, effective technology, especially among illiterate farmers and those in purdah. The key, however, is making sure that the broadcasts fit into the women farmers’ work schedules and that the vernacular is used. Pakistan, for example, has made a practice of agricultural broadcasting in local languages. Radio messages should also slightly precede the messages from extension agents. Evidence from Ghana has shown that female farmers question extension agents about subjects already discussed on the radio.

Television is less widely used, because of production and equipment costs. But with its rapid spread across parts of South Asia, it must be regarded as the media of the future— even in places where there is not yet electricity, video machines have been found (in South Asia, generators are used). Videotapes offer a low-cost way of reaching large numbers of women farmers, many of whom can choose to watch at a convenient time. They are increasingly popular in Yemen, where Muslim women can view programs in seclusion. They are also used in Latin America for training, and in India to strengthen farmer-to-farmer sharing of technical information.

This article is based on World Bank Discussion Paper No. 103(1990), “Agricultural Extension for Women Farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa,” by Katrine Saito and C. Jean Weidemann, and on contributions by Nancy Axinn and Nadine Horenstein.

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