Commentary: From Farm to Fork

Article Date

23 May 2011

Article Author

By Paula Kantor

Media Contact

Anne McPherson

Vice President, Global Communications email [email protected]

The agriculture sector needs to better examine the varied roles of men and women in the production, processing and sale of food. Without such data, agricultural experts fail to reach women farmers in an authentic, sustainable fashion.

Small-scale farmers – many of whom are women – are critical to growing economies and reducing hunger. But we lack proven solutions that link small-scale farmers into agriculture markets in ways that enable these producers and their countries’ economies to benefit.

Small-scale farmers – many of whom are women – are critical to growing economies and reducing hunger. When small-scale farmers have equitable access to markets and opportunities to boost their production, farm incomes increase. Farmers are able to feed their own families as well as provide food to the general population – all of which ultimately helps reduce poverty and hunger.

Women play a crucial part in this effort and in the overall agriculture sector. But despite increasing attention to women’s key roles in agriculture, there is still much we don’t understand. We don’t know how women make decisions about the types of crops they produce or how they process and sell their products. How do women farmers benefit from increased agricultural productivity? And what risks do they perceive when trying to expand their production and incomes? This dearth of information undermines the effectiveness of agriculture investments. Without understanding how women participate in the sector, programs continue to bypass nearly half of the agricultural workforce – to the detriment of women, their families and the sector overall.

We can change this. But doing it in ways that ensure women’s equitable inclusion into larger agriculture markets first requires a detailed examination of the value chains in which small-scale farmers work. Such an analysis essentially traces a commodity, such as maize, from the farm on which it’s cultivated to the dinner table where it’s ultimately consumed. The analysis identifies points along this “chain” where there are opportunities to increase the commodity’s quantity and quality of production as well as the value added to the product, such as through processing maize into flour. And it identifies inefficiencies, one of the greatest of which remains the grave inequities between how women and men participate in agriculture.

With that, it’s imperative for value chain analyses to focus on gender. Examining the journey from “farm to fork,” with an eye toward the varied roles of women and men, allows us to capture the complexities of how they each engage in specific commodities at all stages – from production to processing to sales. It reveals what women and men do and with what resources. It shows how they, their families and the agriculture marketplace benefit. Finally, it assesses these factors in the context of broader social and economic forces, such as how women’s household responsibilities can limit their time to produce crops for commercial markets or how inheritance laws can bar women from owning land.

Take for example a gender value chain analysis of dairy in Africa. Membership to dairy cooperatives was based on households, and only the head of the household was allowed to participate. That person also had to provide proof of land ownership. The analysis showed that the membership rules limited women’s participation in and benefits from cooperatives. So to better incorporate women, the analysis proposed changing the rules to relax the property ownership requirement and allow individuals, instead of households, to join.

The benefits of conducting such a value chain analysis are widely understood but how to do it in a manner that accurately represents women’s opportunities and constraints remains the challenge. At ICRW, we believe that investments in gender analysis of agricultural value chains are vital because analysis results can then be integrated into existing and new agricultural development programs to improve their effectiveness. Without data on women’s roles in farming, processing and marketing, agriculture development experts won’t reach women in an authentic, sustainable fashion. And global efforts to feed the world’s hungry and help lift them out of poverty will continue to fall short.

To that end, agriculture researchers and practitioners can no longer operate in separate silos – especially in light of increasing budget constraints and skyrocketing food prices. They need to work together to find synergy in their complementary interests and expertise. They must set a unified agenda for effectively analyzing the gender inequities at each stage of a commodity’s journey from the farm to the dinner table. And then, they need to identify ways to overcome them.

By taking steps to truly understand the lives and livelihoods of women farmers as well as processors and traders, global endeavors to increase agricultural productivity, boost economies and alleviate hunger will be far more successful.

Paula Kantor is ICRW’s senior gender and rural development specialist.

ICRW will host a workshop in Nairobi, Kenya, with agriculture practitioners and researchers in an effort to jumpstart a shared agenda on creating more gender-responsive research, practice and learning in agricultural development.