New initiative aims to empower Africa’s female farmers

By Justin Cremer

December 9, 2019

As young girls, three recent graduates of the Alliance for Science Global Leadership Fellows Program learned about the massive gender power imbalance within Africa’s agriculture sector from stories their hardworking mothers told.

Slyvia Tetteh grew up in rural Ghana hearing how her mother, as a child, would wake up every day at 4 a.m., walk an hour to her parents’ farm to weed the fields and then walk upwards of two hours to the nearest market to help sell produce. Only after that grueling daily routine could Tetteh’s mother go to school.

Ruramiso Mashumba heard similar stories from her mother, who recounted the “backbreaking work from sunrise to sunset” that she endured during her rural childhood in Zimbabwe.

And Sussana Phiri of Zambia concluded at an early age that it would be impossible to find success in agriculture if she had to rely on the same methods used by her mother and grandmother.

Most of the work but little of the land

The stories these three young African women grew up on are not unique. Studies have shown that women produce around 70 percent of the continent’s food but own only 20 percent of the land. Male farmers often hand their land down to their sons generation after generation, perpetuating this imbalance. Men are also significantly more likely to be able to access the capital, equipment and technology necessary to make a successful living in agriculture.

Tetteh, Mashumba and Phiri are working to change all that through a new initiative to empower and inspire other women farmers throughout Africa. They hope their Women Who Farm campaign can start to eliminate some of the hardships that their mothers’ generation struggled with and that still provide roadblocks to success today.

“We have seen how challenging it is to go into agriculture as a woman,” Mashumba said. “There isn’t a place where you can get information you need on starting out and we also felt as women that we need a place where we can mentor each other and share experience.”

Through Women Who Farm, they are creating a network that will support and inform others through workshops and videos that focus on the business of farming, agricultural science and communication. While their mission to empower women is largely inspired by their mothers’ struggles, the idea of empowering future female farmers goes far beyond just gender solidarity. As they see it, helping women farmers succeed is an effective way to feed an ever-growing population, hence their slogan, “keep calm, African women will feed the world.”

“Five million people die of hunger every year,” Tetteh said at a recent Alliance for Science event in Washington, D.C. “To be able to feed the [African] continent, this must change. In order to increase yields and achieve sustainable growth, women must be educated about agricultural biotechnology and given access to other breakthrough technologies. Only then will women become more productive, independent and financially stable.”

Access to technology and education

As someone who grows maize, fresh spices, vegetables and soya beans, Phiri knows firsthand about the importance of accessing available technology.

“As a young farmer, it’s almost impossible for me to do well in agriculture if I were to do things the same way my grandmother and my mother did it,” she said. “With technology, I will be able to increase my productivity even with climate change and the pests that we are experiencing as farmers today. We can’t expect women to do very well when they’re still using manual tools to do their work.”

Tetteh, who works with the Chamber of Agribusiness Ghana as an administrator and farmer advocate, said that growing up hearing about her mother’s struggles convinced her of the value of education.

“She had worked so hard to finish school but just like her siblings, eventually reality hit her. She realized that it was literally and physically impossible to follow her daily routine and achieve academic success. With no other option she had to marry and start a family, just like generations before her,” Tetteh said.

Even though her mother wasn’t able to complete her own education, the fire she sparked in her daughter never died. Tetteh said she is honoring her mother’s determination by educating women and working with female farmers, something she is convinced will have far-reaching effects.

“When you educate a man, you educate an individual but if you educate a woman you educate an entire nation,” she said.

“You can achieve anything if you put your mind to it”

Mashumba also has been a long-time advocate for education. She decided at an early age that she wanted to support women in rural communities and part of that, she said, was demonstrating what can be achieved. She toughed it out at a school where she was just one of three girls amongst 50 students, and refused to let her male classmates’ constant bullying deter her from her goals.

“Despite how hard it was, I was determined not to give up,” she said. “I felt that I must persevere because I was an example to other young girls. I wanted to show them that you can achieve anything if you put your mind to it, even when the odds are against you.”

And show them, she did. She and the other two girls graduated at the top of their class and Mashumba went on to get a degree at the University of West England before returning to Zimbabwe. She is now the CEO and founder of Mnandi Africa, an organization that empowers rural women by equipping them with skills and knowledge in agriculture. She’s also a successful farmer and was the first woman ever to become the national chairperson of the Zimbabwe Farmers’ Union.

By inspiring and supporting other female farmers, she wants to chip away at the pervasive gender imbalance within African agriculture.

“There are more women farmers but men control almost every aspect of agriculture. Men own land, men have more finance, more access to markets and access to the tools that make agriculture efficient,” she said in her D.C. speech. “In spite of all this, I tell women that we can, we should, and we must stand shoulder to shoulder with men. Together, with an equal playing field, we can do so much more. We can change the image of our continent, we can feed the world.”