Archive for April, 2011

Farmers in eastern Burkina Faso learning to make zai holes using horses.

Farmers in eastern Burkina Faso learning to make zai holes using horses.

This is the third post in an eight-part series about how we can transform the roles of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) like Groundswell to make food sovereignty a reality. Read the first and second posts.

Promoting Farmer Innovation and Agroecological Production

For NGOs sincerely intent on transforming rural communities, the starting point must be the people – not a technology, a particular crop, or even a specific sector per se (agriculture, health, microfinance, etc.) The question must be: how can we support rural people in generating wellbeing and overcoming poverty? We’ve learned much from decades of collective experience and trial and error in thousands of villages in Africa, Latin America and Asia. The key lessons are that authentic, community-led development is always holistic and based on strong local capacity, and that agroecological farming is a vital means for rural people to improve their lives. An increasing number of evaluations and studies are affirming similar conclusions (IAASTD, UNCTAD, various reports by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, etc.)[i]

Why is agroecological farming important for small-scale farmers? The primary reason is that it works. Farmers own the process – managing, adapting and creating it. It improves their lives– often reversing declines while doubling or even tripling production. The majority of small-scale farming work is now globally done by women, and as Fatou Batta says “women are often leaders in adopting agro-ecological practices because it is accessible, meets their needs and can lessen their workload. And in addition to farming, women are also the real link connecting improved production to better family consumption and nutrition.” Agro-ecological farming is economically, environmentally and culturally sustainable. It strengthens communities, local leadership (including  women) and local organizations. It improves the natural resource base that people depend on. Agro-ecological farming is an economic strategy for the poorest people to overcome hunger – to produce and eat a diverse and adequate amount of food and generate income.

In contrast, over the last 50 years we’ve seen countless programs focused on high-external input agriculture do the opposite. I am reminded of some farmers I visited in Guatemala’s highlands a couple of years ago. They had become contract farmers producing broccoli for “a company,” renting land each season and buying seeds, fertilizer and pesticides as prescribed. As we stood in their plot, our feet planted on soil devoid of organic matter, looking at broccoli plants dwarfed by a disease they did not understand, one farmer said, “At first it was a miracle, but now we are enslaved by this system. We make less money every year, and we have to calculate each year if we should plant again, or migrate. We are trapped. I would tell other farmers to farm another way.”

NGOs working to combat this trap created by many aid programs implement a strategy that supports small-scale farmers, local organizations and wider movements to learn about, innovate and expand the use of agro-ecological farming as a practical alternative to improve their lives. “We can’t transform the global food system unless farmers are able to expand the practice of sustainable farming and increase their control over how they farm,” says Peter Gubbels.

Agro-ecological farming means more than continuing the old ways or simply training men and women through a new package of sustainable practices and technologies. Some farmers practice both traditional techniques that are sustainable (seed saving, crop diversity, etc) and those that are no longer sustainable (slash and burn). Others adopt elements of industrial agriculture and reliance on external inputs. Farmers do what they think works for them, and we’ve seen both types benefit from transitions to more agro-ecological farming methods that are appropriate to their conditions: small plots, marginal and barely farmable land, fragile ecosystems, degraded soils, and isolation from services and markets.

What have we found are the most effective strategies for promoting farmer innovation and agro-ecological farming? In our experience, successful strategies revolve around allowing farmers to discover what works for them and spreading these alternatives through their social networks. Key methodologies NGOs can employ include:

  • farmer experimentation and innovation – on their own farms;
  • farmers identifying key limiting factors and testing a small number of alternatives to see what works;
  • strengthening farmer-to-farmer networks to spread successful practices;
  • focusing on seeds, soils, and water – managing, improving and making the best use of these local resources.
  • cultivating diverse, integrated farms

While specific technologies of necessity will evolve with local conditions and opportunity costs, as our colleague Roland Bunch has written, farmers’ capacity to innovate must remain a constant theme.[ii] This means people engaging in the creative, evolving act of farming and avoiding dependence on external inputs which uproot that capacity.

“In Burkina Faso, industrialized agriculture is expanding and being promoted by some political leaders,” notes Fatou Batta.“Village level farmers are not aware that when they sell land or give production rights for jatropha for biofuels, they and their children and grandchildren lose access. We’ve seen the importance of supporting people to learn what works locally, supporting agro-ecological approaches and resisting the pressure of some donors to promote a high external input approach, a quick fix, instead of listening to local people. Our evaluations have shown that the zai technique for water and soil conservation, nitrogen fixing trees, and short cycle seeds result in 50-120% increases in production. It is very high risk for farmers to depend on external inputs and distant markets, and drives them into poverty and off the land.”

In Ecuador, as in many countries, the majority of those managing family farms are women. Organizations like EkoRural are helping them strengthen local seeds systems through farmer field schools. Through discovery-based learning processes, they are supporting farmers in adapting to the effects of climate change that include depleted groundwater and altered rainfall patterns. Farmers measure the value of rainwater lost from their roofs and fields, and “harvest” it in simple storage tanks for future use and, most importantly, in their fields – as increasing organic matter in the soil allows for more water to be stored in it. The result is a positive cycle of increased productivity and innovation and significant improvements in family wellbeing, nutrition and income. Steve Sherwood says that in Carchi, a potato producing region heavily dependent on dangerous and highly toxic pesticides, “farmers have learned to maintain and increase their production using agro-ecological practices while reducing or eliminating the use of expensive and dangerous pesticides.”

– Part 4 will be posted on May 10.

This segment and the rest of the article was a collaborative effort by Steve Brescia (Groundswell’s International Director), Fatou Batta (Groundswell Co-Coordinator for West Africa), Peter Gubbels (Groundswell Co-Coordinator for West Africa), Cantave Jean-Baptiste (Executive Director of Partnership for Local Development), Steve Sherwood (Specialist in Rural Innovation at EkoRural), and Bern Guri (Director of the Center for Indigenous Knowledge and Organizational Development).

Later this year the full text of the article will appear in a book titled “Food Movements Unite!”, which is a collection of essays by food movement leaders from around the world that all seek to answer the perennial political question: What is to be done? It will provide a sector by sector road map for bringing the tremendous transformative potential of the world’s food movements together into a powerful transnational force capable of ending the injustices that cause hunger. “Food Movements Unite!” is being edited by Eric Holt-Giménez, Executive Director of The Institute for Food and Development Policy/Food First, and Annie Shattuck, a PhD candidate at the University of California at Berkeley.

[i] The International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), 2009; UNCTAD (February 2009).  Policy Brief No. 6 – Sustaining African Agriculture: Organic Production. See also: UNCTAD–UNEP (2008). Organic Agriculture and Food Security in Africa. (UNCTAD/DITC/TED/2007/15);“The Contribution of Agroecological Approaches to meet 2050 Global Food needs,” International Seminar, Brussels, June 21-22 2010.  Olivier De Schutter, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food.

 [ii] Roland Bunch and Gabino Lopez, COSECHA, “Soil Recuperation in Central America: Measuring the Impact Four to Forty Years After Intervention,” http://rolandbunch.com.

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Farmers at an Ekorural-sponsored seed fair in Ambuquí, Ecuador.

Farmers at an Ekorural-sponsored seed fair in Ambuquí, Ecuador.

In January, with financial support from the Mary Tidlund Foundation, Groundswell and Ekorural began the process of strengthening the capacity of community-based organizations in six marginalized rural communities in Ecuador to lead their own development process. The six communities – Tzimbuto-Quincahuán, Santa Ana, Galtes, Unalagua, Chirinche Bajo, and Compañía Baja – are located in fragile and degraded highland Andean ecosystems (between 8,200 – 11,480 feet above sea level) in the provinces of Chimborazo and Cotopaxi, where climate change is altering rainfall patterns and groundwater availability and increasing the challenges for smallholder agricultural production.

During 2011, the program will directly benefit 120 families, mostly led by women. In addition to strengthening local organizational and leadership capacities, it seeks to strengthen local seed systems (improving the quality, reproduction, storage and distribution of seeds), and to create ‘canastas comunitarias’ (local food systems) that connect small-scale farmers to urban consumer markets, which helps to increase incomes of families in rural communities while providing low-income urban families with access to healthy, affordable local food.

Women farmers participating in a farm tour in Tzimbuto, Ecuador.

Women farmers participating in a farm tour in Tzimbuto, Ecuador.

During the past three months Ekorural staff and local communities have worked together to achieve significant progress:

  • EkoRural has invested a significant amount of time in building the capacity of its partners and the local team on technical issues and processes. This includes an integral process of capacity building and participatory research on each community farm, exchange visits, and other activities.
  • Two leadership workshops were held in Cotopaxi with the participation of women’s groups from three communities. We have highlighted the importance of social change and people-center development as a means to empower communities.
  • A set of 40 genotypes, mostly originated from Ecuador’s National Institute of Agricultural Research’s (INIAP) germplasm bank, were multiplied in the field and separated in tour sets after harvesting. Currently, they are growing at different altitudes in four areas to ensure successful multiplication. We have emphasized the developing and strengthening mechanisms of self-sustainability, such as revolving credit funds, seed money, etc.
  • Special attention has been paid attention to recovering native Andean crops that are suffering from genetic and cultural erosion. Mashua tubers, oca (Oxalis tuberosa), jicama (Pachyrhizus tuberosus) and melloco (Ullucus tuberosus C.) have virtually disappeared from the local farming system, despite their high nutritional value and apparent appreciated cultural relevance. Our strategy sees farms as natural germplasm banks of equal or greater importance than those maintained by state-run agriculture agencies.
  • Community leaders (especially young women and men) have participated in several biodiversity and seed fairs with our support.
  • In the community of Tzimbuto, Province of Chimborazo, a five-potato variety set, with nutritional contents and local phenotypic characteristics, was harvested.
  • Field staff, technical team, producers and consumers have participated in a series of events, including tours and exchange visits, meetings, workshops, talks, etc., concerning agro-ecological, solidarity economy initiatives and food sovereignty.

Ekorural and its partners are at the vanguard of the local food system and food sovereignty movements in the Andes. The success of this program is yet another example of their inspiring, innovative approach to empowering Andean people.

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This is the second post in an eight-part series about how we can transform the roles of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) like Groundswell to make food sovereignty a reality. Read the first post.

Rethinking and Transforming the Role of NGOs

Representatives of various communities near Pignon, Haiti filling soil bags for tree seedlings. This nursery will produce 5,000 trees every year.

Representatives of various communities near Pignon, Haiti filling soil bags for tree seedlings. This nursery will produce 5,000 trees every year.

Many NGOs are doing valuable work, but having worked with NGOs for decades, we are aware of their limitations and problems. The case of Haiti is often illustrative of the problems with development assistance and the roles played by NGOs.

On January 12, 2010, a catastrophic earthquake in Haiti devastated Port-au-Prince and surrounding cities. One major reason the devastation was so great in these cities was that Haiti’s underlying rural foundation had been greatly weakened. Rural farming communities had been systematically drained of resources for centuries by bad economics and politics, both domestic and international. The most prominent resource that remains in Haiti is the Haitian people themselves, (the majority of which is still rural and farming based)their tenacity and capacity for organized action. Years of rural migration to cities with inadequate infrastructure, housing or jobs contributed to over 250,000 people being killed in the earthquake. In the days following the earthquake, 600,000 displaced people fled back to the countryside – at least temporarily. Peasant communities and organizations responded by receiving, housing and feeding these people, depleting their own limited food and seed stocks. Partenariat pour le Développement Local (PDL) helped channel a small portion of the emergency assistance following the earthquake to these rural organizations. They used the resources efficiently for both short-term relief and investment in the long-term solution of revitalizing devastated rural areas, as a foundation for Haiti’s future. “We are strengthening local peasant organizations so that they can be actors in leading their own development,” says Cantave Jean-Baptiste. “Over the last 20-30 years, we have seen that strong peasant organizations adopting agroecological farming, improving local seeds, soil management and so on, are key in Haiti and have been making long term improvements in rural communities.”

Despite the proficiency of peasant organizations, the clear need for decentralization in Haiti, and the demonstrated effectiveness of agroecological approaches; peasant organizations have largely been left out of shaping or implementing plans for Haiti’s recovery. Drawn up by international experts and a Haitian government with limited capacity or credibility with its own people, recovery plans only pay lip service to priorities like promoting agriculture and domestic food production, supporting family farming, involving peasant organizations and decentralizing the country. In practice, the implementation of these plans defaults to typical top-down interventions heavily biased towards the importation of what for poor farmers are expensive technologies. Commenting on the plans, Jean-Baptiste says, “I see seeds, fertilizers and tractors, but I don’t see farmers. Where are the farmers?” The plans are generally implemented by putting contracts out to bid to development companies and NGOs.

This example from Haiti illustrates the most frequent role NGOs play: implementing contracts for plans rural people have neither designed, nor agreed to. The world of official development assistance usually either misses the opportunity to work with rural people and farmers’ organizations, or works in opposition to their interests. Most aid money is strongly influenced by the paradigm of industrial agriculture which seeks to extend its model and inputs to small-scale farming. NGOs too frequently end up being the implementers of this agenda, and fit into service delivery and relief categories. Few strengthen the capacity of local people and organizations to transform their economies sustainably, and few support agroecological farming.

So what should NGOs do and not do?

In Haiti, “NGOs can play a technical role in supporting agroecological production, but they should also strengthen the capacity of local organizations to carry out their own development,” says Jean-Baptiste. “NGOs commonly respond to their headquarters and not to communities, and therefore have limited interest in coordinating with each other to learn what works.”

“In Ecuador, NGOs are a mixed bag,” says Steve Sherwood. “NGOs have become donor driven and project driven. This has limited their ability to be responsive to local needs and be creative. Project-based giving has hurt NGO effectiveness. For EkoRural, we try to keep our role as small as possible. We don’t try to find solutions for local communities, but find what is working, ask good questions, support local creative ideas, and facilitate exchange to help these to grow. Having limited financial resources forces us to be responsible and rely on local people’s leadership.”

“In Ghana and in most of Africa, most NGOs have a technical focus rather than linking to social movements. NGOs are supposed to be waging the war on food insecurity, but most are isolated entities,” says Bern Guri. “There are reasons:  they are struggling to survive and responding to donor demands, rather than working in coalition. In CIKOD we suffer from these challenges as well. We have our vision. I may think that one important way to encourage food sovereignty is through improved practices in communities, but some funders only support advocacy. This can create frustration.”

NGOs that want to strengthen community-driven change to create a healthy agricultural and food system and economy need to find ways to meet these challenges though:

  • Being responsive to the interests of rural communities and organizations, rather than to funders, while developing greater downward accountability to those communities;
  • Critically analyzing what kind of farming works for small-scale farmers in the developing world;
  • Connecting effective community-level action to wider policy reforms;
  • Developing alternative sources of funding when the donor community demonstrates limited willingness to invest in agro-ecological and farmer-led approaches with a track record of success;

Seeing their role primarily as strengthening local capacity for sustained change and working themselves out of a job, rather than delivering services.

— Part 3 will be posted on April 26.

This segment and the rest of the article was a collaborative effort by Steve Brescia (Groundswell’s International Director), Fatou Batta (Groundswell Co-Coordinator for West Africa), Peter Gubbels (Groundswell Co-Coordinator for West Africa), Cantave Jean-Baptiste (Executive Director of Partnership for Local Development), Steve Sherwood (Specialist in Rural Innovation at EkoRural), and Bern Guri (Director of the Center for Indigenous Knowledge and Organizational Development).

Later this year the full text of the article will appear in a book titled “Food Movements Unite!”, which is a collection of essays by food movement leaders from around the world that all seek to answer the perennial political question: What is to be done? It will provide a sector by sector road map for bringing the tremendous transformative potential of the world’s food movements together into a powerful transnational force capable of ending the injustices that cause hunger. “Food Movements Unite!” is being edited by Eric Holt-Giménez, Executive Director of The Institute for Food and Development Policy/Food First, and Annie Shattuck, a PhD candidate at the University of California at Berkeley.

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On April 1st and 2nd, Fatou Batta, Groundswell’s Co-Coordinator for West Africa, participated as a panelist at a session on Food Solutions at the Pacific Northwest Funders Conference in Seattle.

Fatou’s presentation, titled “Food Solutions by and for People and the Planet”, was extremely well received by conference attendees. Please take a few moments to read her presentation below.


Family in Burkina Faso with vegetables harvested from garden

Family in Burkina Faso with vegetables harvested from village field.

Today more than ever the international community is concerned with the challenge of feeding the world’s population through “food solutions by and for people and planet.”  This timely and complex issue requires responses that are appropriate and multifaceted.  Indeed the idea of food solutions refers to a number or related issues such as:

  • Agricultural policy and food production methods
  • The control of population growth
  • Management of agricultural lands
  • Food consumption patterns
  • Value added processing of food
  • Access to water
  • Availability and distribution of infrastructure
  • Market access
  • Human capital and knowledge
  • Internal and external migration of populations
  • Stability of countries in relation to conflicts, natural disasters, etc.

Within this complexity, I will focus my comments on the following:

1.    The context of food insecurity in the Sahelian countries of West Africa

2.    The causes of food insecurity, particularly in Burkina Faso

3.    The role of rural women in agricultural production and food security

4.    Challenges women face

5.    The priorities and solutions of rural women

1. The West African Context:  A challenging, fragile and high risk natural environment

Tantamba, a village leader, explaining challenges to farming in the Sahel.

Tantamba, a village leader, explaining challenges to farming in the Sahel.

In recent decades, the countries of West Africa have gone through successive food crises. Some of these crises are cyclical in origin, while others have more structural causes.  The recent financial and food crises of 2008 that shook the world and led to unprecedented protests in several countries, particularly Sahelian countries, have highlighted the structural causes that affect the availability and use of food resources. They also highlighted the fragility of agriculture in most Sahelian countries that practice subsistence agriculture based largely on rainfall, and are therefore very vulnerable to climatic hazards.

In its latest 2010 report on hunger, the FAO estimates that 925 million people are undernourished in the world.  Although this represented a decline of about 7.5% from 2009 levels, the figures are still too high, especially in Africa where one third of the population faces food insecurity and hunger.  And these numbers are again increasing as food prices have risen in recent months.  Indeed, global food security is threatened by population growth, changing eating habits, strong demand for agro fuels and disasters caused by climate change.  So policy makers feel an urgent imperative to increase agricultural production.

2. The causes of food insecurity: the case of Burkina Faso

Despite efforts over many years to reduce hunger and malnutrition, we must recognize that food insecurity remains a daily reality in Burkina as in most Sahelian countries. Basic cyclical factors like climate risk, low soil fertility and crop pests contribute to food insecurity.  There are also many contributing structural factors related to the availability, accessibility, and use of food.  The main factors for rural communities are: the low level of access to and management of water; degradation of natural resources; inadequate and poor roads and communications infrastructure; low income levels particularly in rural areas; poor access to credit; and weak nutrition education.  Finally, at the governmental and institutional levels, the coordination, support and monitoring of agricultural policies and programs for food security are not very effective or well-implemented.

Climatic and ecological changes in recent decades have led to the disintegration of traditional organizational forms of collective ownership, and the destabilization of the equilibrium of production and consumption patterns of different types of families.  These changes have resulted in a serious crisis in the family as the basic unit of society.  Another danger that threatens food security is land grabs for cultivation of non-food crops.  Farmers are under pressure from firms which are located upstream and downstream from agricultural production.

To meet the food needs of a growing population, some experts have called for high external input agricultural strategies and a promotion of technologies related to pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, seeds and water consumption.  The risk is that we focus on maximizing productivity at the expense of social and environmental considerations to improve people’s lives.

We find that access to food for a majority of the population is not always related national agricultural production levels.  In many cases in sub-Saharan countries, at the same time that the authorities declare a surplus food production thousands of people are hungry and have to resort to food aid or go hungry.  The case of Burkina Faso is illustrative: at the end of the 2008-2009 agricultural season the government of Burkina Faso reported a strong harvest of more than 4.3 million tons of cereals, with a surplus of over 700 thousand tons (DPSA / DGPER, 2009). Yet the population of many areas in the northern part of the country did not have adequate food for even one meal a day.  A main reason is that the low income family farmers must produce food sustainably and do not have money to purchase food.

3.  Women’s roles related to agriculture and food security, and the challenges they face

Women working together to water their fields.

Women working together in eastern Burkina Faso to water their fields.

The role of women in agriculture has taken on added importance as African countries continue to suffer from famine and malnutrition.  Women are the primary link between production, family consumption and ensuring the nutrition of children and the whole family.

Since the great droughts of 1973-74 and 1984-85 in the Sahel countries, women have seen an increase in their responsibilities in agricultural production because the majority of the male workforce increasingly leaves vulnerable areas in search of employment in cities.  This has led women to spend more time in the fields in order to meet the needs of family members – especially children and the elderly. Over 30% of people in countries like Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger are in almost permanent food insecurity (IFPRI, 2004). In times of crisis, women are the main players in the survival of families.  Indeed it is women who develop initiatives and strategies to overcome these crises, and make a disproportionate effort to keep their families fed.  The result is that rural women play a central role in household food production and food security in the Sahel.

So if we seek to improve the food security of small scale farming families in the Sahel, we must necessarily support women.  The big questions are:  Do we clearly understand the roles of rural women?  Can we identify appropriate kinds of support for them?  How can we provide that strategic support without further destabilize the family unit?

According to the latest data on Sub-Saharan Africa, women represent over 50 percent of agricultural labor – the highest proportion in the world.  However this proportion varies greatly between countries and even within countries.  Data indicates that women’s participation in agriculture ranges from at least 33% in the coastal countries to over 60% in a country like Niger.  In Burkina Faso, women represent over half of the agricultural workforce, and their participation rate in economic activities in rural areas is 81% (ENSA 1993).  Although they are heavily involved in agricultural activities, women’s roles vary significantly by regions, ethnic groups and production systems.

3.1 Women’s Role in Agriculture and Livestock Production

Goats and other livestock are key for rural livelihoods and for maintaining soil fertility.

Goats and other livestock are important for rural livelihoods and soil fertility in Burkina Faso.

Rural women in Burkina Faso participate in farming activities, ranging from responsibility for a few activities to being primarily responsible for all farming activities – including difficult tasks such as stump removal in some regions.  In some areas of western Burkina Faso, after marriage women are primarily responsible for working to repay the dowry paid by their husbands.

During a recent discussion with the women of Tampoutin, a village in eastern Burkina Faso, they described that they are involved in all agricultural activities – from the preparation of fields, which is their exclusive responsibility, to the transport of crops after harvest.  In addition to this crushing burden, they cultivate personal plots of peanuts, cowpeas, groundnuts, sesame, and okra.  Yet often the land they are provided to cultivate is already highly degraded.  As family fields become too degraded to farm, husbands allow women to cultivate these parts of the farms.  Such plots are also often very small, so women are required to cultivate several scattered plots. The fragmentation of plots leads to an inefficient use of women’s time, especially since they only have the right to work on their own fields after they have completed their work on the main family plots, which is usually when the sun goes down.  This leaves women little time for their own activities.

Despite these constraints, women make enormous efforts to produce food in order to meet their needs and those of their families.  For example, I recently spoke with Tantamba, a 45 year old woman who is a leader who lives in Tibga village.  Over the past two years she has produced enough in her field to feed her family. The plot that her husband’s family granted her is largely barren and eroded by water runoff.  In her first year working the plot, her efforts were entirely unproductive, as she cultivated with a hoe and barely producing enough for 5-6 months of the year.  But through perseverance and the opportunities provided to learn improved agroecological farming techniques, she is now produces enough food for her family for all 12 months of the year.  To conserve and improve her soil she uses the techniques of mulching (dead leaves and branches laid on the ground); working with her children to collect the manure of animals in the wild and transporting it in small containers to integrate into her fields; and transporting rocks to construct stone bunds, or rock barriers for soil conservation.  With these approaches and hard work she has managed to restore part of her plot and increase its production.  She is continuing her efforts to improve the land through locally accessible technologies.  Tantamba expressed great satisfaction that she is able to produce enough to meet her family’s cereal requirements for the entire year, while generating some surplus to sell so she can invest her earnings in other income generating activities.  Last year she received support and guidance from an NGO, including a cart, plow mules and a compost pit, allowing her to further increase her production.

In the latest edition of its report on the global status of food and agriculture, the FAO said if women in rural areas had the same access as men to land, technology, financial services, education and markets, it would be possible to increase agricultural production and reduce the numbers of hungry in the world by 100 to 150 million people.  The report adds that by giving women farmers in developing countries the same access as men farmers to agricultural resources, women-managed family farms could increase their production by 20 to 30 percent.  This would increase total agricultural production in developing countries by 2.5 to 4 percent, and would reduce from 12 to 17 percent the number of undernourished people worldwide (the total of 100 to 150 million people).

In the area of ​​livestock management, women are responsible for watering the animals, a task they perform with the help of their young children.  In some areas they can engage in fattening livestock such as cattle, sheep and goats, and can raise poultry, which can generate income and/or be bartered for grain in times of need.

Another example of a woman improving her life is Lucie.  She is the president of the hygiene and sanitation committee in her village in Mali, and she has also maintains a garden plot.  She received training in agroecological production and some basic equipment from an NGO.  When I recently interviewed her she said: “Earlier, our food supplies ran out before we reached the next harvest, and my family had problems obtaining money to buy food.  Now my vegetable production has allowed me to feed my family and even to buy a sheep.  And the sheep has now had offspring.”  Like other women, Lucie has been able to meet the food needs of her family by diversifying and improving her production.

3.2 Women’s Roles in Natural Resource Management

Women also play an important role in the management of natural resources, and because of that are key sources of knowledge about biodiversity.  As one of their tasks is to gather fuel wood for the household, they are very familiar with different species of trees and their uses.  They also are responsible for gathering wild fruits and leaves for family needs, or for sale to generate income to help ensure food security for the family.  Women also earn substantial income to purchase food for their families by exploiting species such as shea butter, tamarind, baobab, locust, and balanites, etc.  Locust seeds are rich in protein, and women process them into foods to improve their family diets and contribute to the recovery of malnourished children.

3.3 Women’s Roles in Processing and Marketing Agricultural Products

Women also engage in non-farming activities, including the processing, preservation and marketing of agricultural products.  Food security is not limited to agricultural production, as there are many important activities required to manage beneficial linkages between producers and the market.  These activities include processing, marketing and distribution.  Women play central roles in allowing products to be stored, transported to markets, and circulated according to consumer demands.  At the same time, women play crucial roles in the development of local markets.  Given these primary responsibilities, much flexibility and decision making is in the hands of women and they can develop strategies to improve family and community wellbeing.  Ways to provide support at this level include improving rural roads and transportation infrastructure, local food storage facilities, and appropriate technologies for processing agricultural products (such as husking fonio, processing rice, or making shea butter).  All of these would help create more favorable conditions for local markets and improve the condition of women.

4. Challenges and difficulties

Despite the importance of their roles, women farmers are often not involved by policy makers and funders in decision making regarding development programs and policies.  Even while some efforts have been made over the last two decades on behalf of women in agriculture, these are still not sufficient.

Women are investing in agro-ecological practices that are more sustainable, respectful of the environment and biodiversity, and better adapted to the conditions of small-scale farmers.  Yet they face many difficulties in accessing resources.  They have little access to training on technical and management issues, because their specific needs are not taken into account either within organizations or in the design and content of training sessions.  In many cases, they are not able to access equipment and inputs that are intended for the family farms, yet are controlled by men.

In recent focus groups with women we discussed their access to use family farming equipment.  Without exception women expressed that they are not entitled to use the equipment at peak seasons, and when their husbands do give consent it is generally too late for required agricultural activities like plowing or weeding.   Likewise, they expressed that animal manure or compost, an important source of organic fertilizer, is reserved for family fields, even though women play a key role in filling and maintaining compost pits.  The quantities of compost produced are not even sufficient for the family farm fields, so none is left for women’s plots.

5. The priorities of rural women

The important role of women in agriculture is evident.  It is also clear that development strategies to improve the food security of small rural producers in the Sahel should emphasize support for women.  So this raises the important question:  What is the best way to support women and to ensure that this support is sustained?

One of the proposed solutions to boost agricultural production in Africa, in particular since the 2008 food crisis, is the Green Revolution.   While the model of Green Revolution of the 1960s that was introduced in Asia and Latin America produced some spectacular results in terms of increased productivity, it has also had devastating effects on the environment and the social fabric.  Now these same experts are trying to introduce a Green Revolution in Africa that supposedly has been cleared of its past imperfections.  African farmers do not seem convinced.  Nearly a half century after the introduction of the Green Revolution much of humanity is still suffering from chronic famine, so it is doubtful that the problems of hunger and poverty can be solved by this solution.

On the other hand, a number of African organizations and national and regional networks are working to promote alternative solutions, based on the experiences of African farmers and that are appropriate to the African context.  These include the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA) and the We are the Solution campaign.  It is in this context that organizations of rural women in Africa are seeking to express their concerns and interests.  Key concerns are the loss of diversification of crops and seeds, and the reduction or even loss of the ability to farm and produce in a way that allows them to sustain their families during the lean periods.  These factors undermine the resilience of families to respond to food shocks such as price spikes or droughts.

Women have analyzed their needs from a practical and strategic point of view, and have identified the following priorities:

  • Training on sustainable farming techniques
  • Access to information on markets and training in value added processing for agricultural products
  • Strengthening their organizational capacity
  • Access to credit and equipment
  • Land tenure security
  • Agricultural research based on traditional knowledge
  • Documentation and enhancement of existing knowledge of women
  • Access to appropriate technologies to reduce the burden of food processing
  • Access to literacy, education and services for reproductive health.

6. The Role of Groundswell International

The Sahel is extremely vulnerable to disasters, droughts, floods and invasions of pests.  In such a fragile and vulnerable environment, the slightest shocks can send hundreds of thousands of families deeper into a vicious cycle of poverty.   In this context, the NGO Groundswell International is working to address the structural causes of food insecurity by strengthening the capacities of farmer organizations to promote agro-ecological approaches to improve the resilience of their farming systems, sustainably manage their natural resources and preserve the biodiversity upon which they depend.  While successful local alternatives and agroecological practices exist, in general they have not been supported by governments and development agencies, so their potential has remained untapped.

Groundswell’s strategy in Burkina Faso is to:  a) support a network of local organizations to identify sustainable agricultural practices that are being implemented by communities and are showing a promising impact in the fight against poverty and hunger; b) to further support, diversify and strengthen these practices and examples; c) to strongly prioritize the leadership and involvement of women and women’s groups in the process;  d) and to spread and multiply the adoption of these practices through support and knowledge sharing between farmers, women’s groups, communities and local organizations.

Groundswell International is a partnership of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and resource people in Africa, Latin American and Asia that is committed to strengthening the capacity of rural communities to achieve positive social change.  The founders and members of the Groundswell partnership have decades of experience in methodological and technical support for rural development process that strengthen the capacity of local organizations to promote environmentally friendly farming practices that protect the environment, biodiversity and strengthen the resilience of local food systems. These approaches are an important part of sustainable solutions to improving food security and overcoming poverty in rural communities.


Whatever the level of global and national food supply, development policies and practices should directly address the root causes of poverty and malnutrition among the majority rural populations.  This includes the lack of sustainable strategies for the rural poor, especially women and children, to access adequate, healthy food.   Women have little access to land and other productive resources, and their involvement in the survival of their families and households is undervalued.  In spite of this, many women have demonstrated their ability to overcome family and community-level challenges and to successfully diversify and increase their food production and income, sustain their families and become more resilient in the face of crises. Women must be seen as important leaders and an undervalued resource in the struggle to end poverty and hunger in Africa.

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