Several women walking with water jugs on their heads
USAID partners with countries across sub-Saharan Africa to reduce vulnerabilities to climate change and make economies and livelihoods more resilient. | Credit: Boniface Musembi, USAID in Africa

Weather Variability, Extreme Shocks and Women’s Participation in African Agriculture

By Elizabeth Hohenberger

Are female or male farmers in Africa more affected by weather variability and extreme shocks? A new study from the International Food Policy and Research Institute (IFPRI) sets out to answer this question. The study, Weather Variability and Extreme Shocks in Africa, Are Female or Male Farmers more Affected? seeks to empirically quantify how women and men differentially adapt their participation in agricultural employment under weather variability and extreme climatic events. Using labor force and bioclimatic data across Africa, IFPRI studied agricultural labor patterns in areas with weather variability and climate shocks and found that these events force a reduction in agricultural labor for both men and women. However, in cases of extreme shocks, the number of hours women worked decline much less on average compared to men’s, meaning their workload reduces less than men’s. Therefore, women’s agricultural labor is important for sustaining households’ agricultural production during climatic events. 

Agriculture is a primary sector of employment in Africa and plays a key role in food security. In a sample of 30 African countries, around 159 million people aged 15 and older are directly engaged in agriculture, with an additional 307 million people dependent on the sector indirectly. In the whole continent, nearly 100 million women are directly engaged in agriculture, representing 44.8 percent of total agricultural employment. In addition to the time devoted to agricultural production, women’s domestic labor plays a crucial role in sustaining agricultural household livelihoods. Despite their important role in agricultural livelihoods, women face additional constraints relative to men in unequal access to and use of productive and financial resources and information, control over agricultural decisions and income, and in higher reproductive labor burdens.

With such a pivotal, but challenging, role in the agricultural sector, it is important to understand how changing climatic conditions impact women. Pre-existing gender gaps in agriculture have been found to be magnified under climate-sensitive conditions. For example, a study on food security in India found that when climate-related disasters lead to declining yields and increasing food insecurity, women tend to consume less food than men. Another study noted that in times of extreme weather, men are more likely than women to migrate to areas unaffected by shock, while women find themselves responsible for an increasing workload in agriculture and supplemental income-generating activities in men’s absence, as well as increased domestic labor. In a rural district in Tanzania, extreme weather events have forced poor women into a labor market to be hired by wealthier women to collect animal fodder, adding extra workload to women’s existing responsibilities. In some instances, extreme weather events force women to accept jobs that expose them to hazards, illnesses and work exploitation. 

These results highlight that, under changing climate conditions, men’s agricultural labor is falling faster than women’s, and that women are putting in more hours of agriculture labor than men.

Knowing the importance of women’s role in the agricultural sector, as well as the challenges they face, the study authors try to understand how women’s agricultural labor changes under weather variation, as compared to men’s agricultural labor. They found that extreme weather events reduce the number of weekly hours farmers engaged in agricultural activities by an average of 40 percent in the case of heat waves and 14 percent for droughts. The effects of heat waves and drought events appear especially severe in West and Central Africa, where the number of weekly hours dedicated to agricultural labor fall by an average of 49 and 23 percent, respectively. Flood events have a greater impact in East and Southern Africa, where weekly working hours decrease by an average of 26 percent. 

Looking at sex-disaggregated data, the study found that women’s working hours in agriculture decline to a lesser degree than those of men, particularly in response to heat waves. Overall, women’s participation in agricultural activities mitigate the negative impact of heat waves on farm labor by an estimated 40 percent compared with men’s participation. In North Africa, women’s hours devoted to agricultural labor are 15 percent higher than men’s, while in Western and Central Africa women’s participation in agriculture mitigate the negative impacts of droughts by 28 percent as compared to men’s. These results highlight that, under changing climate conditions, men’s agricultural labor is falling faster than women’s, and that women are putting in more hours of agriculture labor than men. Under current climate change scenarios, female farmers are now becoming the backbone of African agriculture, essential to sustaining production.

Implications for Programming

Given the pivotal role women play in enhancing agricultural performance and mitigating the negative effects of extreme weather events, as well as the impact of changing climactic conditions on female farmers and agricultural livelihoods, agricultural programming should increasingly be equipped to reach, benefit and empower women. 

Economic development programs will need to grapple with the changing agricultural production landscape. As viable natural resources become more scarce, rural populations are pushed into urban settings, leaving agricultural production at risk. Governments, investors, and programs need to consider how to ensure farmers, a population group that may increasingly be female-dominated, are producing enough for both domestic and international consumption while balancing livelihood needs. The success of these farmers will be crucial in smoothing food security across all populations.

Agricultural production programs will need to ensure services are reaching women, as farming demographics become increasingly female. Extension services must increase their direct engagement with female farmers, particularly on drought-related, heat-stress, and flood-tolerant agricultural technologies that will help them adjust to the impacts heat waves, drought and weather variations have on production. 

Given that women have traditionally faced constraints in accessing financing due to their more limited assets to leverage, lack of credit history and mobility challenges, financial providers will need to consider how products can be tailored and targeted towards women to ensure they can access needed agricultural inputs and technology. Financial providers can attract women by relaxing loan and bank account requirements, developing innovative measures to overcome lack of credit history, and providing remote or mobile banking access. Looking ahead, as women take on more responsibility both in the field and at home, investors should consider how agricultural research and development can reduce women’s labor burden both within and outside agriculture, with attention paid to tradeoffs such as workloads, food security, individual and household wellbeing and availability of assets.

Market systems programs will need to meet the needs of female farmers who face gendered constraints in access to agricultural and financial resources, control over how income is used and labor demands. As the agricultural workload shifts increasingly to women, programs should consider time-saving ways to connect women farmers to the marketplace, such as favorable contracting that places the burden of transport on the buyer, digitization of the marketplace and upgraded infrastructure. Bundling needed services, such as financing, extension services and digital marketplaces will ensure that women are able to comfortably engage in the market system even if they face mobility or time constraints. Examples include digital marketplaces/e-commerce platforms linking buyers and sellers, agricultural extension services that can also be digitized and localized geographic information on agricultural conditions.

As agricultural livelihoods increasingly fall on women farmers, all programming will need to set specific targets to engage women in the production, distribution and marketing phases. The use of Gender and Social Inclusion Analysis in design and implementation of programming will be key to ensuring effective integration of women in productive household livelihoods.

This blog was originally published on Agrilinks

Strategic Objective
Adaptation, Integration
Agriculture, Climate-Resilient Agriculture, Climate Finance and Economic Growth, Food Security, Gender and Social Inclusion, Weather

Elizabeth Hohenberger

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