GENDER insights

Getting rural women ahead with gender-responsive agricultural technologies

Women parboiling rice in Benin Photo: R. Raman/AfricaRice.

On the sidelines of 67th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW67) in New York City, the CGIAR GENDER Impact Platform brought together policymakers, researchers, farmers and development practitioners to draw attention to gender-responsive agricultural technologies that are critical for rural women.

Rural women contribute substantially to food systems in developing countries—as producers, workers, processors, traders, retailers and consumers. However, evidence also shows that they face huge constraints in accessing resources, information and services they need compared to men farmers.

Recent global crises—COVID-19, climate change and conflict—continue to widen this gender gap in food systems. Reports show that during emergencies women and girls are disproportionately affected, and often eat last and least—suffering from hunger and malnutrition more often than men.

Solving the challenge, then, to feed the world in the face of these global crises will depend on how quickly we enable rural women farmers as agents of change with new agricultural technologies and digital innovations.

On the sidelines of 67th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW67) in New York City, the CGIAR GENDER Impact Platform brought together policymakers, researchers, farmers and development practitioners to draw attention to gender-responsive agricultural technologies that are critical for rural women. An in-person event (on March 9, 2023) highlighted promising examples of agricultural technologies developed by CGIAR researchers and partners, and how they are breaking barriers that prevent access to these innovations, especially for women farmers.

In her opening remarks, Dr. Susan Kaaria (Director, African Women in Agricultural Research for Development) highlighted how the gender gap in agri-food systems in developing countries has widened significantly over the last two years because of COVID-19. This, added to low land tenure security for women, means they are significantly disadvantaged in their access to financial services.

“The world is off track in achieving gender equality. We need to be bold and impatient in our actions, if we are to achieve gender equality in food systems,” said Dr. Kaaria

Getting the right technologies in the hands of women

If we are to achieve the SDGs by the end of the decade, rural farmers will need improved technologies—such as improved new plant varieties, animal breeds, farm machinery or even agricultural methods—quickly to respond to the challenges presented especially by a changing climate.

CGIAR researchers have been working with partners in national agricultural research institutions to develop and release the right technologies to help farmers cope with such challenges. However, women farmers are less likely to adopt these technologies. There are many contributing factors to this, including underlying social norms in communities which limit women’s access to information and knowledge about technologies. But even so, women often do not have control over resources, such as land, or decisions over what to do with the new technologies on-farm.

The event highlighted why co-developing technologies with women, men, youth and diverse groups of farmers and consumers will be necessary to ensure wide use of these technologies.

“We need to develop technologies with women in mind, but as we do this we need to take into account their constraints, their opportunities and priorities,” said Dr. Kaaria

Wairimu Kanyiri, a champion farmer under GROOTS Kenya (a national movement with over 4,000 rural farmers), added that we will need more information from the women themselves to assess their needs.

“We need to collect data. Whatever we will do in helping women needs to come from them, otherwise you will have more challenges at the end when you don’t involve them,” said Kanyiri.

However, developing an innovative technology only gets half the work done. To get the technology into the hands of rural women, it will require concerted efforts to work around existing norms and societal structures that prevent women from accessing the new technologies.

Kanyiri highlighted the plight of many women farmers in Africa where access to and control of land is still a critical challenge. Land ownership is still in the hands of men farmers, and although women work on the farm, they do not necessarily control decisions like what to do with the land, whether to plant new varieties and how the proceeds will be utilized. Kanyiri pointed that this not only limits access to the technologies, but also access to related government services.

“Most women cannot even reach government subsidies like fertilizer, because to access that you need a land title deed—which we know women don’t have access to,” said Kanyiri.

Using gender-transformative approaches

While sharing their experiences from the field, CGIAR researchers highlighted that it is one thing to develop a technology, but it is easy to forget about systems that the farmers are operating in. Therefore, it is critical that food-systems actors also think about how to address the sociocultural norms that perpetuate gender inequalities—preventing the accessibility and scaling up of affordable agricultural technologies.

International Livestock Research Institute’s (ILRI) senior social scientist (in gender) Dr. Esther Njuguna-Mungai noted that, “The technology may be good, but if the enabling environment is not, farmers may not take advantage.” She further highlighted how gender-transformative approaches will be needed if we are to “bring everyone on board and break these negative norms and barriers creating inequalities.”

While disseminating improved forages with partners in Kenya and Ethiopia, Dr. Njuguna-Mungai learned how approaches like the use of ‘family pillar conversations’ enabled communities to tackle issues of decision-making, labor and benefit-sharing in households.

In Western Kenya, the conversations helped the husbands realize that their wives were doing something beneficial with brachiaria grass and that they needed more land for that. Eventually, the adoption of the grass increased as women had more access to land. In the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples’ Region of Ethiopia, men appreciated that feeding animals takes a lot of labor for the women (who also have other responsibilities in the household)—and although the cultural norms dictate that only women can take care of a dairy cow, they started helping provide feed for livestock.

“We have learned that you cannot just take a technology: you also have to think about the system. Be intentional in dealing with the norms and barriers created,” said Dr. Njuguna-Mungai.

Working to scale the new rice-parboiling technology in East and West Africa, Dr. Gaudiose Mujawamariya (Gender Focal Point, AfricaRice) noted that the technologies should also be accessible and affordable to the rural farmer. Dr. Mujawamariya noted that, in most cases, rural women do not individually have the resources to buy a big machine as compared to buying new improved seeds of a variety. It is imperative to work with other partners—including women themselves—to find ways of making the technology affordable.

“For instance, public investment by governments can be key in recognizing that they need to put money [into] supporting women entrepreneurship. They need to understand why this technology is important, not only for women, but the rice sector,” said Dr. Mujawamariya.

Collective action among the farmers is also key. Dr. Mujawamariya pointed that when farmers come together in groups, they can make a business case and go to financial institutions to access credit.

“It makes a difference when women consider themselves as business partners, and not beneficiaries. This also calls for building the soft skills like the way women look at themselves, and how they can explain the innovation as something critical in the rice value-chain development,” said Dr. Mujawamariya.

Scaling up the use of accessible and affordable agricultural technologies will require a lot of change in policies, legal frameworks and institutions to intentionally support rural women. CSW67-agreed conclusions reaffirmed the importance of including women in the entire process of technology development.

Even as digital technologies present an opportunity to accelerate gender equality, the Commission called for increased public and private-sector investment to bridge the digital gender divide and promote safe and gender-responsive technology and innovation.