Encouraging Women and Youth Participation in Africa’s Agriculture

By John Karuitha and Bob Wekesa
COVID-19 has intensified African countries’ vulnerabilities to the vagaries of agricultural production and supply shortages in times of crisis. For instance rice exports from Vietnam to Africa were halted in March 2020 due to COVID-19 concerns, putting millions relying on this staple food in a precarious situation. COVID-19 restrictions also led to supply chain bottlenecks that affected movement of imported food from the ports to the hinterland and, internally, from farms to markets within and between African countries. The ensuing economic lockdowns pushed many urban dwellers into smallholder farming for survival.
How do African women and youth fit into the accelerated challenges brought about by COVID-19 in relation to agriculture and food security? Currently, 60% of Africa’s population is below the age of 25. By 2050, the continent is expected to hit a total population of 2 billion. Of this, more than half will be under the age of 25. Africa has to realize her potential in agriculture to not only feed the additional people. But also generate jobs and take advantage of the youth bulk and reap the demographic dividends as happened with Asia’s green revolution that formed the bedrock of accelerated economic growth in the decades that followed.
Equally paramount is women participation in agriculture given that women form at least 50% of the economically active population. Women in Africa face many road blocks that limits their participation in Agriculture.As a case in point, the World Bank report titled Agriculture in Africa: Telling Facts from Myths shows that women contribute 40% of labor to agriculture in spite of being about 50% of the population. In this respect, factors that impede women and youth participation in agricultural economies on the continent will have dire consequences on food security.
For Africa to feed its ballooning population, the involvement of women and the youth is vital. Identifying and resolving the resolution the barriers that result in their low levels of participation in agriculture is critical. These barriers take the form of three interrelated factors, namely, scale, land ownership, and market failures.
The majority of African youth and women are in the small-scale farming category for reasons that will be apparent in this and subsequent articles. Except for South Africa, the rest of the continent is dominated by smallholder farming, defined as farming practices on less than 2 hectares of land. A study by the High-Level Panel of Experts on Food Security (HLPE) estimates that 73% of farms in Africa are less than one hectare, while 85% are less than 2 hectares, accounting for 25% of the agricultural land.
Researchers project that for the next decades, as Africa’s population rises amid a low industrial base, capital per farm worker will drop simultaneously with the shrinkage of average land size, limiting the use of land-intensive, labor-saving techniques and modern equipment. Again, declining farming land has sparked clashes between sedentary crop farmers and pastoralists in places like Northern Nigeria. As a result, some researchers hold the view that smallholder farmers cannot “farm their way out of poverty” due to the low scale of operations unless they supplement farm income with alternative sources.
The prevalence of smallholder farming has implications on the adoption of modern farming technologies. A 2017 World Bank report shows that among smallholder farmers in Africa, two thirds do not use inorganic fertilizer. Use of organic fertilizer varies from a high of 77% in Malawi to a low of 41% in Nigeria. Experiences from the Asian green revolution shows that adoption of fertilizers is a critical ingredient to improving agricultural productivity.For smallholder farmers, owning machinery such as a tractor would be costly, and many opt for shared schemes. A dismal 3% of smallholder farms adopt irrigation.
Yet, it is apparent that smallholder farmers encounter difficulties that would dissuade them considering agriculture as an employment or income generating engagement. Smallholder farming and the associated low use of modern farming techniques is that financial returns to agriculture are not adequate to attract women and youth would not be attracted to farming. Instead, a scramble for the few opportunities in the services and industrial sectors.
Smallholder farmers face several challenges, including difficulty negotiating favorable prices with buyers, turning many small-scale farmers into price takers rather than price givers. Equally pertinent is the fact that lack of adequate assets to secure loans which limits capital acquisition, a problem that particularly afflicts youth and women. Hence, smallholders in Africa have not adopted modern farming techniques as a rational choice coupled with lack of alternatives and low awareness of farming options.

Land ownership
The second factor, related to matters of scale, is land ownership. Gendered land ownership system in Africa favours men, arising out of their traditional role as heads of the family units. In pastoral communities, much of the land is communal, leading to unsustainable overgrazing and conflict over pasture and water. The land question directly emanates from a lingering issue of the ease of doing business in Africa, the quality of institutions, and property rights. For women and the youth, the skewed land ownership and lack of property rights limits their capacity to raise capital as land is an attractive form of collateral for financial institutions.
Besides ownership bottlenecks, little of the land in Africa has formal documentation, making it hard to establish proof of ownership and hence limiting long term planning. This is particularly the case for women and youth, although the problem also affects older men. Research shows that land tenure security is essential for pro-poor land use that would ultimately ensure national and continental food security.
Rwanda has demonstrated that it is possible to have almost universal land tenure regularization. In 2012/13, the country undertook and completed a countrywide land tenure regularization, issuing documentation to many smallholder farmers. The process has shown promising results with US$ 2.6 billion worth of mortgages secured against land and property. Also, the program enhanced land access for legally married women – about 76% of married couples – allowing better recording of inheritance rights without gender bias. Moreover, the program had positive impact on investment and maintenance of soil conservation measures. In other African countries, the process of land regularization is still at its infancy if it exists at all.
Market failures
The third factor is market failures, which are a common and enduring feature in Africa’s agricultural sector?/industry?. For instance, during periods production glut, i.e. when farmers flood the market with a given product, each farmer is acting to further their individual goal of sourcing income. On the downside, too many goods lead to inadequate demand, low prices, and spoilt goods. In pastoral communities in Africa where land is communal, uncontrolled numbers of livestock lead to land degradation and ultimately inadequate pasture and water for the herds.
A chief source of market failure in agriculture is information asymmetry. While farmers struggle with excess produce in local markets, consumers in another part of the country or the continent and the world could be suffering from a shortage of the commodity. But neither the farmer nor the consumer is aware of this due to communication failures. The solutions to market failures are a mix of state interventions and market solutions, especially using information technology. The idea is to use technology to link farmers to potential customers thereby expanding the geographical scope of the market. State interventions would include policies and institutions that promote economic inclusion and market access.
Way Forward
There are no simple solutions to the questions of scale, land ownership and market failures in Africa’s agriculture. However, accelerated land registration has demonstrated positive effects in Rwanda. As noted earlier, much of the land in Africa is communal which limits planning. The need for markets that could handle the surge in production and the need to educate farmers about the new technology and ensure that they had access to the inputs and receive an adequate reward to their investments calls for active involvement of the government in leading agricultural reforms.
In the next installment, we shall discuss value chains and policies.