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Contextualizing challenges to women's inclusion in building climate-resilient agricultural value chains

March 3, 2022

In recent years, climate change, regional disruptions and COVID-19-related public health measures have markedly exacerbated challenges to gender equality in African agriculture and food systems. The debate on how best to support women’s involvement in these systems is complex and multi-faceted, and the increasing magnitude of such obstacles has only left the conversation more fraught.  

“In times of crisis,” stressed IDRC Program Officer Mercy Rurii, “we must be vigilant in supporting women. This calls for flexibility and adjustments to ensure that women are not dropped or left behind. Inclusion must remain at the forefront of interventions.” 

Despite comprising 50-75% of the continent’s workforce, African women face major and ongoing disadvantages: limited access to resources and financing, barriers to receiving adequate training, and consistent underrepresentation in leadership roles and policy discussions.  

In this context, IDRC has been reflecting on its history of agri-focused research and interventions, with the aim of sharing knowledge on approaches that lead to a better understanding of the importance of women farmers, and their families, in healthy, sustainable food systems.  

Three different IDRC-funded research projects spanning three African regions offer a unique perspective on opportunities, challenges and a way forward for women working in agricultural value chains. These projects were also the focus of an event during last year’s African Green Revolution Forum.  

Empowering East Africa’s women farmers 

The Cultivate Africa’s Future (CultiAF) precooked beans project, based in Kenya and Uganda, directly addresses gender inequality in local communities and the value chain. The project’s initiatives include training in good agronomic practices and financial management, the provision of improved bean variety seeds and the development of a mobile app through which farmers are paid for their produce directly.  

For women, the app means they receive their payment without it first being diverted through their husbands or other members of their household. This system thereby empowers women as autonomous business owners, enabling them to register their businesses in their own name, in their own right, and access their profits independently to use as they choose.  

Grace Nanyonjo, a member of the precooked beans research team, believes the project is having a powerful impact, with over 5,000 women farmers having received access to improved bean varieties – which yield more than double that of traditional varieties – and over 10,800 registered for the digital app.  

"Digital technologies,” Nanyonjo emphasized, “have the potential to empower rural women, and many women farmers can bear witness to how this technology has made their households food secure, nutrition secure and income secure.”  

Making the most of Moroccan quinoa 

Another research project is working to improve food and nutrition security in poor, rural communities in Morocco through the quinoa value chain.  

Redouane Choukr-Allah, a member of this initiative, believes one of the most significant aspects to her team’s work is how they use drought-tolerant, nutritious crops to improve rural women’s livelihoods. Specifically, the project has been enhancing awareness among the farming community about quinoa’s economic benefits and potential as a stress-tolerant alternative to traditional cereal crops, and has been working with four women’s cooperatives – supplying them with quinoa seeds and processing equipment, as well as training in quinoa production and processing.  

As a result of these efforts, 140 women have been trained to become more efficient and effective in quinoa production, improving their income and food security. The project has introduced five new varieties of the crop, which have increased yields for these women farmers by an average of 130%. The project has also been developing strong linkages among research institutions with national extension and advisory services to strengthen capacity-building services and ensure that farmers receive effective support in adopting technology, such as improved seed varieties.  

Burkinabé shea as a pathway to resilience 

The third project focuses on Burkina Faso’s shea supply chains, which bear a long and resilient history spanning 700 years. Currently, there are 10,000 women’s organizations trading in shea and 94% of households collect shea – of which 60% sell shea nuts or shea butter. These considerations earn this crop huge significance among the population.  

However, despite shea’s prominence as a valuable agricultural resource, there is also a distinct lack of protection for the parklands in which it grows – a major risk factor identified by the project’s research team. As a result, overexploitation, overgrazing, fire and climate change represent continuous threats to the crop. In response, the project co-hosted a National Shea Forum in June 2021, which brought together 180 stakeholders and (predominantly women) shea producers to develop a call to action for the government to address the degradation of shea parklands.  

For his part, project lead Andrew Wardell remains deeply concerned that if the tree resource is depleted, no amount of training, capacity building or organization of women shea producers will be able to prevent the loss of their livelihoods.  

Overcoming challenges and ensuring inclusion at the forefront of interventions 

Each of these projects has had to adapt its operations in the face of recent crises, such as COVID-19 travel restrictions, climatic episodes and regional geopolitical disturbances.  

How can initiatives to boost resilient and gender-equitable food systems survive, and even thrive, in the face of such challenges?  

Partnerships, both with public and private-sector entities, have been singled out by project teams as critical to resilience and the capacity to reach target populations. The initiatives carried out with these partners included the development of resources, such as the precooked beans team’s mobile app in Uganda, which was created in partnership with the MasterCard Foundation, and the influencing of policy, such as through the National Shea Forum in Burkina Faso, held in collaboration with the Ministry of the Environment, Green Economy and Climate Change.  

Quinoa project team member Redouane Choukr-Allah thinks it is critical that policymakers and researchers recognize the deep interconnectedness of each component of value chains and the resulting interdependence of actors in each stage. “You cannot achieve sustainable empowerment without empowering all the actors across the value chain,” Choukr-Allah said.  It is essential, he argued, to support women working in every activity, from farming to marketing, in order to produce significant, equitable, sustainable impacts. 

The experiences of these projects from across Africa exemplify a clear lesson: despite unprecedented circumstances and times of incredible hardship for so many, development research projects must continually adapt to maintain their focus on women and support them as crucial value-chain actors and developers of resilience. 

Research Highlight

  • Despite unprecedented circumstances and times of incredible hardship for so many, development research projects must continually adapt to maintain their focus on women and support them as crucial value-chain actors and developers of resilience. 

  • Partnerships, both with public and private-sector entities, are crucial to boost resilience and help foster more gender-equitable food systems.  

  • Digital technologies have the potential to empower rural women, and many women farmers can bear witness to how this technology has made their households food secure, nutrition secure and income secure. 

  • In the face of ongoing and progressive climate change, agriculture in highly vulnerable regions must turn to more drought-tolerant, nutritious crops to improve rural women’s livelihoods.