“We need to build back better.” This has been the rallying call on the COVID-19 response by UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres to leaders and communities around the world. It has been echoed in conference rooms and in the numerous Zoom meetings organized to discuss the pandemic. It will be especially important to apply the idea to women working in the agriculture and food sector.
Women farmers often have lower access to productive resources than men—so in times of crisis, like COVID-19, their farm productivity and food security will likely be hit harder. The pandemic is affecting input availability and use. In a survey by Precision Agriculture for Development in Kenya, 8 in 10 agri-dealers reported a decrease in farmer footfall, and 76% reported lower sales compared to a month earlier.
Women play a critical role in entrepreneurship in the food sector, from small scale processing to high growth companies that employ thousands of workers. In Sub-Saharan Africa, female entrepreneurs are more prevalent than male entrepreneurs, although their businesses are typically smaller and with less capital and many are in the informal sector.
The Future of Business survey found that female led businesses were 7 percentage points more likely to be closed compared to male-led small businesses. They are also likely to take longer to recover from the impacts of the pandemic due to their lower access to formal credit and reliance on the family network for investment finance.
A report by UN Women and the UNDP found that a total of 247 million women and girls will be living on less than $1.90 a day in 2021. And of this number, 132 million are in sub-Saharan Africa.
And while there has been extensive discussion of gendered impacts of Covid-19, particularly the care burdens on women, and on building back better after the pandemic, what that looks like for many women engaged in stallholder agriculture is not clear to many.
The current recovery efforts, and support to the agriculture sector have remained gender blind, and when they have focused on women, they have tended to make assumptions about women’s roles in the food system. For example, women farmers have been targeted with interventions focused on home gardens and homestead food production and while this is important, it is not enough.
Evidence shows that women play a pivotal role in all three key components of food security: food availability (production), food access (distribution), and food utilization as well as in activities that support agricultural development.
Leaving them out in the short and long-term recovery process is not an option and any efforts to build back better must focus on and include women.
So, how do we “build back better” for women in the food sectors? Initiatives must include two broad strategies to succeed; increased access to social protection, appropriate seeds, markets and finance; and enhanced and amplified leadership of women. This is how it can be achieved.
First, governments can increase access to markets for women smallholder farmers by providing short term access to markets through procuring Covid19 food relief and school meal supplies. A study in India showed that public procurement institutions helped the state government implement a timely and sound procurement process during the lockdown, preventing widespread losses in crop income.
In the longer term, developing improved local markets with infrastructure that supports women such as child care facilities, encouraging shorter value chains and crop diversification has been shown to enable women access markets.
Second, allocation of inputs must target women who are the majority smallholder farmers in the continent. Most governments are allocating funds for inputs, through digital voucher systems. For example, Kenya is spending a 500 million USD loan from the World Bank on inputs through a voucher system that has no specific targets for women despite another program with IFAD showing that targeting women has led to increases in their production. These voucher systems are however likely to leave women out due to their lower access to mobile phones.
Third, target cash transfers directly to women as a social safety net. Cash transfers targeted at women have potential to help them rebuild their businesses, secure their food security and that of their households. In Nigeria, women who received cash transfers increased investment in their own business activities, were more likely to be involved in their own non-farm businesses and increased their profits.
Fourth, support women entrepreneurs, traders and processors engaged in the food business. Women have however always faced barriers to financial inclusion. Reforming the financial system so that it works for women must be a critical part of building back better.
For example in Zambia, the implementation of a self-check tool for commercial banks to ensure their financial products and services address women’s needs in the same way as those of men led to some banks adjusting their products to better meet the needs of women.
And finally, women who are in smallholder agriculture and agribusiness must be part of building back better. In the political space, countries with female leadership have been very successful in dealing with the pandemic. This leadership has however not cascaded to other sectors. The participation and influence of women is needed in the design, implementation and monitoring of policies and programs for building back better in the sector. Building back better must be defined by those most affected by the pandemic.
Dr Jemimah Njuki is an Aspen News Voices Fellow and a UN food systems champion. She writes on gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls.
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