Africa Grapples With How to Support Women Farmers at UN Food Systems Pre-Summit
How to support African women farmers is a key issue for the continent

As the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change exacerbate global food insecurity, African countries are committed to giving more support to small farmers – particularly women.

This emerged at the United Nations Food Systems Pre-Summit in Italy, which opened on Monday as a precursor to a formal UN summit planned for September.

Rwandan President Paul Kagame told the pre-summit that there was consensus among Africa nations that the continent’s food agenda needed to be based on five pillars: nutrition-centred food policies including school feeding programmes; local markets and local food supply chains; increasing agricultural financing (20% of expenditure); encouraging farmer cooperatives and ensuring women’s access to productive inputs and finally, expanding social safety nets and investing in climate advance warning systems.

Both UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and Pope Francis appealed for the world’s food system to be transformed in the face of hunger, poverty, climate change and inequality.

Guterres said the world was “seriously off track” in achieving the sustainable development goals by 2030, thanks to “poverty, inequality and high cost of food”.

About 811 million people face hunger in 2020, about 161 million more than in 2019, he added.

“The pandemic, which still assails us, has highlighted the links between inequality, poverty, food, disease and our planet,” said Guterres.

Meanwhile, Pope Francis urged the world to create food systems that “guarantee sufficient food at the global level and promote decent work at the local level; and that nourish the world today, without compromising the future.”

Women farmers lack land and support

UN Food System Summit gender champion Dr Jemimah Njuki

“There are 1.7 billion rural women and girls in the world – more than one-fifth of all humanity. It is unacceptable that they make up almost half the agricultural labour force, yet they are more likely than men to live in poverty and hunger,” said Sabrina Dhowre Elba, the UN Goodwill Ambassador for the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD).

“In Ethiopia, as in many African countries, women are vital food system actors, but they face many challenges. Women, particularly in rural areas have multiple responsibilities in cooking, farming, fetching water for the household, finding firewood, childcare, food preparation while simultaneously engaging in trading of the food they produce or buy,” said Dr Lia Tadesse, Ethiopia’s health minister, addressing a session on micronutrient deficiencies.

While women performed up to 75% of farm labour, only 18,7% of agricultural land in Ethiopia was owned by women farmers, she added.

“Poverty, inequality and cultural and traditional practices limit woman’s ability to provide better plates for their families,” said Tadesse. “Malnutrition is the inevitable outcome of food systems that do not work for women. And this is also evident by women and children being the most affected in undernutrition and in micronutrient deficiencies.”

High rate of anaemia in women and children

Anaemia is as high as 24% for women of reproductive age and as high as 57% for children under five, she added.

UN Food System Summit gender champion Dr Jemimah Njuki, said that “how to support women smallholder farmers, how to make sure they actually have the productive resources that they need to transform food systems, how to ensure they actually have right to the land that they cultivate,” was one of the key issues in transforming food systems.

Elizabeth Nsimadala, President of the Pan-African Farmers Organization (PAFO) hailed the pre-summit: “It’s the first time that I’m seeing a UN process that is inclusive, diverse and open to all stakeholders.”

UN food systems pre-summit

Low productivity of small-scale farmers 

Lobin Lowe, Malawi’s Minister of Agriculture, lamented the “low production and yields” in his country “due to predominance of smallholder farmers”.

“Productivity levels remain lower than actual potential because of the smallholding land size and labour intensive production… and climate shocks such as droughts and floods,” Lowe told a summit side event on Tuesday.

Prof Amos Laar from Ghana said that a diagnostic analysis of his country, alongside community dialogues, had exposed five key weaknesses in the country’s food system.

“Number one, is consumption of unhealthy food,” said Laar. “Ghana is urbanising at a very fast pace. Currently, we have nearly 60% of our people living in urban areas in Ghana, and in these areas the food environment is not healthy.”

The second issue, said Laar, was reliance on energy-dense, unhealthy staple foods.

“Ghana must instigate a shift from actions that lead to feeding the population to actions that lead to nourishing them,” said Laar.

Sub-national disparities between different regions affected food production – as did poor infrastructure including a lack of processing and cold-chain capacity that lead to about 20% of food loss, said Laar. 

The final impediment, said Laar, was Ghana’s vulnerability to climate change, which has been exacerbated by environmental degradation – “land pollution, soil pollution, water pollution” – caused by illegal mining.

Beginning more than a year ago, the summit process has included more than 1,000 dialogues in 145 countries involving tens of thousands of people around the world. 

“The results of these dialogues have provided national governments with the most comprehensive picture to date of existing interconnected challenges – from hunger and poverty to rural livelihoods, health and youth unemployment – as well as opportunities to address these,” according to the UN.


Image Credits: UN.

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