Richard Clarke, Sahel and West Africa Club (SWAC) Secretariat
Food insecurity remains unacceptably high in West Africa. According to the Food Crisis Prevention Network, nearly 9.5 million people in the region required food assistance as well as measures to protect their livelihoods and combat malnutrition between June and August 2016, despite significant improvements since the 1990s. FAO data also shows that changing trends have seen women representing approximately 50% of the agricultural labour force on the African continent, while IFAD estimates that women contribute 89% of agricultural employment in Sahelian countries. Thus, women’s contributions to food systems across West Africa have both widespread implications and prospects for food security and resilience in the region, a subject upon which Donatella Gnisci has written a paper for the OECD/SWAC West African Papers Series.
With equality and empowerment issues featuring strongly on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, particularly through Sustainable Development Goal 5, never has there been a more pertinent time to stimulate policy debate on this subject.
Developing a greater understanding of the subject must always be the first step in the process of policy analysis and design. This latest West African Paper informs the debate by describing the ways in which women participate in the four broad activities of the region’s food system before making its own policy recommendations.
Women are involved in all areas of food production, whether staple foods, cash crops or livestock. Men and women often work side-by-side, but cropping patterns and task allocation are often gender specific with subsequent impacts on crop selection, harvesting and consumption decisions, as observed in Côte D’Ivoire. However, access to land, inputs, credit and training (amongst other productive resources) reveals ingrained gender inequalities that put women at a disadvantage in managing their land. These disparities are exacerbated when education levels differ between genders, as shown in productivity gap differentials in Niger, which has been shown by the AfDB to have a huge impact on national economies.
Women are involved in processing activities across all three broad categories of food: cereals and vegetables, fish and meat. Tasks vary from cleaning and grinding, to salting and fermenting, to cooking and marketing. These post-harvest activities attract both female labour and entrepreneurship in West Africa, motivated by both a lack of alternative employment opportunities and potentially profitable markets. Notably, the fish processing industry in the Casamance region of Senegal is 90% controlled by women with hired labour predominantly male. This has led to the formation of women’s networks in many parts of the region, who, amongst other roles, are seeking to address the insufficient access to capital, technologies and training that remain barriers to greater female participation in the sector, relative to those faced by men.
Women continue to be the pivot of local food distribution systems and often have monopolies on street-food vending as in Ghana and Niger, with preparing and selling food second only to agricultural production as a source of income for women working in the region’s food system. Distribution is in fact often done in conjunction with these activities. The rise of supermarkets in the region can create substantial business opportunities for women in the sector, but only if they can meet the quality and consistency standards of suppliers. This is a challenge for female farmers and entrepreneurs in particular who are often at a disadvantage in their access to distribution networks and management experience in comparison to their male counterparts.
Consumption and nutrition
In West African societies, women and girls have predominant roles in preparing food for their dependents as part of their non-remunerated roles in the community. Women need not only the purchasing power to improve their community’s diets, but also the education to prepare nutritious foods. This is suggested to be the case in Senegal relative to Mali, which has much lower levels of stunting in children despite having a similar level of GDP. Furthermore, tailored health services must be provided to support women who are regularly laden with heavy workloads but put the nutrition needs of their dependents before their own. The risks of this are heightened when women’s bodies are weakened by early or serial pregnancies and from the strains of child-raising, common across the region.
In West Africa, positive steps have been taken by regional organisations such as ECOWAS, UEMOA and CILSS to strengthen the capacities of national ministries working on gender equality. However, greater empowerment of women at all levels of society associated with activities throughout the region’s food system is required if malnutrition rates are to be reduced and resilience of communities strengthened. This necessitates a broadening in scope of current activities to the implementation of multi-sector policies that influence gender relations at household, societal and political levels. In turn, a virtuous circle of empowerment and greater participation of women throughout the regional food system can be generated. Strengthening women’s networks to provide the services required to aid their empowerment appears to be a positive short-run step.
However, tackling gender inequalities at every level and across every sector is required if real empowerment is to be realised. This struggle must not only be a women’s struggle, but a societal one too, embodied in community activities and public policy.