African women in agriculture suffer disproportionately in COVID-19 pandemic

By Verenardo Meeme

February 23, 2021

African women in agriculture are suffering disproportionately as the COVID-19 pandemic worsens existing structural economic, social and technological inequalities, a new survey shows.

Female farmers on the continent are struggling to perform their multiple roles in society during the pandemic and specific policy measures are required to accelerate the recovery in rural areas and alleviate existing gender inequalities. So says a survey conducted by the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), which sought to determine how rural women are coping with COVID-19.

The respondents included 71 women over the age of 18 who are operating small and medium agribusiness enterprises (SMEs) across the four sub-Sahara Africa regions. Most of the women who responded were producing crops and livestock (52 percent) or involved in processing and distribution services (48 percent), with just a few engaged in commodity marketing and service provision.

Women are a key pillar in the continent’s food and agricultural systems, comprising 50 percent of the agricultural workforce and owning one-third of the SMEs that produce, process and trade in agricultural products and services.

Elly Siakasasa, CEO of FutureSeeds, a company in Lusaka, Zambia, involved in the production, processing, packaging, marketing and trading of certified indigenous legume seeds, was one of those who responded to the survey. Before COVID-19 set in, her business was thriving. Then the Zambian government responded to the pandemic by instituting various control measures in February 2020.

The timing was especially critical for FutureSeeds because seed production requires mandatory field visits by the Seed Control and Certification Institute, the authority that controls and regulates seed quality and standards in the country. FutureSeeds needed to meet farmers in the field and the restrictions stifled access to extension services, Siakasasa noted.

The pandemic has made it difficult for her firm to distribute and monitor high-grade seed because there have been no field visit reports to support the field verification in terms of germination rate, vegetative stages of the crops and management of the seed fields. FutureSeeds sources products from legume seed breeders and small-scale famers and sells its products to NGOs supporting poverty alleviation programs, nutrition and empowerment agribusiness ventures. The products are also distributed through agricultural dealers and government agencies under the Farmer Input Support Program for small-scale famers.

The pandemic forced Siakasasa to close her office and operate remotely by phone and internet. The company incurred high costs and liquidity challenges and now needs support to resume meaningful business across the whole supply chain. Restrictions on movement and physical gatherings further harmed the company as it relies on field visits to disseminate information and showcase products, personal meetings to negotiate prices and access to bulking centers and collection points.

“Existing technological challenges within the supply chain have made it difficult to manage our business well because issues of adaptation and switching to new communication and ways of doing business in the new normal are a nightmare,” she said.

‘‘We are just surviving, really hoping to get support to pull through this negative impact,” she added. “We know the healing and recovery process may take years unless substantial amounts of support and technologies are given.”

The COVID-19 pandemic restriction measures created inequalities. For instance, in some African cultures, women go to the market to sell food crops while men focus on cash crops. Women may turn the proceeds of their sales over to their husbands, who are the head of the family, for budgeting.  When restrictions on movements and curfew were enforced in response to the pandemic, the reduction in travelers meant fewer customers at the markets and reduced work hours for women, resulting in less income.  These sorts of scenarios further undermine the capacity of women to recover from the pandemic disruptions.

The disruptions have affected not only their livelihoods and agri-business enterprises, but also increased women’s workloads, threatened their families’ well-being and increased incidences of gender-based violence. The survey showed that 54 percent of women sampled have experienced domestic violence or know a woman who has. Additionally, 60 percent of the women reported they were unable to access financial services and 72 percent were unable to access markets

Siakasasa’s experience demonstrates that local networks of female farmers can be useful in aggregating demand and serving as collection and distribution points for input deliveries. Siakasasa and her group are coping by using diversified marketing channels to widen their market reach and mobile tools/social media to contact key inputs suppliers. They are also reducing their operations.

The power of mobile technology for trainings and standard agricultural extension programs can address barriers that women farmers in Africa face, while reducing physical contact, the study found. Cash grant programs channeled through mobile money platforms can promote social distancing, increase women’s privacy and security and lead to better outcomes. The study recommends integrating measures that involve the short-term injection of flexible finance, as well as training and bolstering the use of digital solutions to enhance recovery and improve resilience to future shocks.

Further, the study suggests the response should include measures to increase awareness about and reduce gender-based violence. It is therefore crucial to reinforce women’s SME’s knowledge and use of digital media and platforms to aid recovery and build resilience to future shocks, the study concludes.

Like elsewhere across the globe, investing in the empowerment of African women farmers has started to pay off, enabling them to contribute to the fight against COVID-19 and socio-economic recovery efforts. For instance, AGRA is working with partners to promote measures aimed at assisting the agriculture and food sector recovery while stimulating targeted responses to address disproportionate burdens on women and other vulnerable populations.

Image: Elly Siakasasa inspects a soy bean field for FutureSeeds. Contributed photo.