Agricultural Transformation in Rwanda: Do we still need to focus on Women farmers?

By Chantal Ingabire
Should women farmers continue receiving attention to enhance their integration in agricultural commercialisation? This was one of the questions I received during my participation in the Pan African Grain Legume and World Cowpea Conference in 2016. The event gathered researchers, policy makers, farmers and people from the private sector bringing together their knowledge and experiences to enhance the importance of grain legumes in food security and livelihoods in Africa. The question came after my presentation on common bean commercialisation in Rwanda. Results in the presentation showed that common bean is increasingly becoming an important source of income for women. In fact, female headed households were found likely to have higher level of market participation than those headed by men. The results also revealed that increasing access to agricultural training and income generating opportunities among women farmers would boost their degree of commercialisation. This would further contribute to the ultimate goal of agricultural transformation in the country; the market oriented production.

Neno S CIAT

Credit: Neno, S., CIAT

So the question was whether more attention to women farmers is still needed in a country like Rwanda, already recognised as a leading nation in gender equality. I heard almost the same question, one and a half year earlier at the launch of the FATE project in Kigali: Why focus only on women? This question continues ringing in my head and an answer to it energizes my research interest on women farmers. Do we really need to have a particular focus on women farmers while all the government policies and strategies have been gender mainstreamed since 2000? To this question, I am always convinced the answer is “yes”, a reply I gave to my fellow conference participants, a year ago next to the Victoria Falls in Zambia.

This answer was based on the presentation mentioned above but also on the general facts about Rwandan women in agriculture. Results from research in Northern Province of Rwanda reveal that among 554 households studied, women received only 23% of the agricultural revenue in the cropping year 2015 while men received the remaining 77%. The differences in revenue shares is caused by a complex set of factors. In women headed households, production is relatively lower such that the quantities sold still keeps their revenue lower than that of the men for most marketed crops. The low production itself is caused by the small size of their agricultural land and poor crop productivity. Limited access and use of agricultural technology as well as the women’s triple roles within their households (combining reproductive, productive and community works) entrench their low agricultural productivity.

Dusengemungu L RAB

Credit: Dusengemungu, L., RAB

Further evidence is available: despite efforts invested to shift from subsistence to market oriented agriculture and despite the remarkable changes that followed, the majority of farmers are still in subsistence production. Women farmers dominate this category. Women are not only limited by low access to assets such as land, finance and knowledge but also their control over these assets is a critical challenge within many farming households. There are still many cases where wives lead the production activities with minimal involvement in output marketing which is usually taken over by husbands. This sometimes happens even in women headed households where other male family members (sometimes from extended family!) take over marketing and revenue activities. In addition, despite these constraints, agriculture remains a unique sector in which the majority of women (82% versus 63% of men) are employed . Recent reports show that even among the dual headed households, more women than men participate in agricultural production . The number of women farmers is likely to rise as men exit to non-farm employment . Isn’t it true then that women should receive special attention for a successful agricultural transformation?

For me the success of agricultural transformation, including commercialization rests on women farmers, so my answer is still valid. Yes, focusing on women in agriculture is worthwhile and this is much more relevant in Rwanda, as the country continues to mainstream gender in the different sectors of the economy. It makes sense for faster development of the agricultural sector. It also makes sense for remunerating these women whose sweat is rarely rewarded!

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