CGIAR Gender

CGIAR Collaborative Platform for Gender Research

On gender and breeding: reflections

Reflections from the gender plenary at the joint Pan African Grain Legume and World Cowpea Conference 

Authored by Esther Njuguna-Mungai (CGIAR Research Program on Grain Legumes), with contributions from Jacqui Ashby (CGIAR Consortium Office), Steve Beebe (International Center for Tropical Agriculture) and Sally Humphries (University of Guelph).

Climbing beans in Rwanda perform more than three times better than other varieties, but delivery systems to get them to farmers are key. Photo: Georgina Smith/CIAT
Climbing beans in Rwanda perform more than three times better than other varieties, but delivery systems to get them to farmers are key. Photo: Georgina Smith/CIAT


Held at the Joint Pan-African Grain Legume and World Cowpea Conference which took place in Livingstone, Zambia between February 28th and March 4th 2016, this panel session focused on transformational cases of gender research integration into legumes plant breeding and development approaches. The presenters discussed approaches that were both farmer led and participatory, and others that prioritized women preferred traits into a breeding program thus showcasing ‘gender integration into programs’ from two differing and interesting perspectives of plant breeding.

Integrating gender into research for development programs has been made a requirement of the funding and research implementation community, in the recent past.  Most (if not all) of the research and development program design today, come with a requirement to demonstrate how gender is effectively integrated across activities.  This requirement however, has not been easy to interpret for both the biological scientific community and the social scientists, who have had to talk to each other and figure out ‘how to do this’.

There has been a transition in how well this has been done- from the quick-and-dirty approach with writers disaggregating “farmers” into “men and women,” to get the gender box ticked; to merely adding a ‘gender paragraph’ that doesn’t affect research design; to doing exemplary work on integration of gender into research and development programs.  The examples presented at the plenary session however, were examples of the latter.

Lessons learned

  • Legumes are grounded in small farm production systems and so sustaining interactions with farmers in long term participatory plant breeding processes, where men and women are involved, has the potential of farmers’ germplasm leading to new varieties; transforming social norms and leading to continuous innovation; including improvement of women’s agency. An NGO offering other development inputs alongside Participatory Plant Breeding methods sustains the interest of the farmers over time (farmer fatigue, cost of time?) Reaping benefits through engaging in seed systems that brings benefits to the group is also an incentive for the farmers. Sustained funding, the right mix of partnerships, equal participation of actors therefore are all key factors of success (Sally Humphries)


  • Breeders can (and are able to) breed for gender responsive traits; but in order to prioritize traits to be worked on, they need comprehensive and focused data on traits and preferences in the targeted locations. This kind of data is not always available as most gender data collection is done as case studies or site specific surveys.  We are challenged to propose ways of collecting long term datasets on gender issues (especially trait preferences) and having feedback loops between the breeders and the gender researchers.  Nutrition and gender is an area that needs more and more discussion in the area of interface and critical elements of analysis. (Steve Beebe)


  • In order for the analysis of gender-differentiated preferences for varietal traits to inform breeding objectives the approach used in the private sector, of identifying precisely differentiated, segmented markets or customer groups can be valuable. End user profiling using gender analysis can help identify and prioritize target beneficiaries very clearly, making it easier to breed for a segment of society, on a targeted issue where one is sure of potential demand and likely impact.  This requires a concerted effort in multidisciplinary research teams to clearly articulate ‘who are we breeding for, and what outcomes and benefits we  are breeding for’ (Jacqui Ashby)


  • Attention to gender tends to be concentrated towards the latter stages [testing, adoption, impact assessment] of product development in agricultural research, and less in the earlier stages specifically in breeding whereas important work is being done in these areas leading to the release of some varieties that incorporate traits women prefer. Descriptive gender analysis listing women’s and men’s preferred traits doesn’t go far enough: more ex-ante analysis is needed to inform priority setting and targeting. Gender analysis at the early stages (especially end user profiling, preference and trait discovery) has been under-emphasized. This is a missed opportunity in view of the ongoing revolution in breeding and biotech innovation, accelerating exponentially the rate of gene discovery and development of new products for farmers, increasing our capacity to target new products more precisely to meet different demand of men and women end users.  (Jacqui Ashby)


The way forward

Breeders could breed more effectively for gender responsive traits if social scientists seize the opportunity to match the advances breeders have made in accelerating breeding to develop more comprehensive and systematic datasets profiling legume and pulse end users and their preferences, based on breeders’ target locations.

Gender inequalities mean women producers don’t always capture the benefits of improved varieties, and so it’s important to combine this type of work with empowering approaches to variety and seed system development.

Thus, it is important to cultivate long-term investment in initiatives that empower women farmers leads to sustained innovation, thereby creating a continuous stream of new farmer-selected varieties that benefit women and men equally.


Note: this post is a reflections piece based on the plenary session entitled “Transformational Gender approaches in legumes research and development: Cases of excellence,” which took place on March 3, 2016. The session was moderated by Esther Njuguna-Mungai (CGIAR Research Program on Grain Legumes). Speakers included:  Jacqui Ashby (CGIAR Consortium Office), Steve Beebe (International Center for Tropical Agriculture) and Sally Humphries (University of Guelph).