The Last Mile: Reaching Women Farmers

This piece is part of a series of blogs by leading NGOs to call attention to a range of issues that should be raised at the G8 summit at Camp David in rural Maryland from May 18-19.

Go to the end of most any dirt road in rural Africa and you will see a smallholder farmer, most likely a woman, tending her crops.

Those farmers, so neglected and marginalized over the years, will be front and center in the discussions of food security this weekend, at the Chicago Council's Symposium on Advancing Food and Nutrition Security in Washington DC on Friday and at the G8 meetings at nearby Camp David. There will be declarations of renewed commitments and new partnerships to improve agricultural development in the poorest countries of the world.

And then what?

"We want to make sure that they are connected all the way into the field. It is the problem of the last mile," says Ritu Sharma, the co-founder and president of Women Thrive Worldwide.

Paul Schickler, the president Pioneer Hi-Bred, a DuPont business, nodded his head enthusiastically. "We are the last mile," he said. "My business is unique. We touch that last person who puts the seeds in the ground."

Going that last mile, bringing the benefits of agricultural development to the farmers at the end of the road, is the challenge within the challenge. The overarching challenge confronting the world is the need to double food production by 2050 to meet the demands of a global population that is growing in both size and prosperity. The smallholder farmers of Africa and other developing regions of the world are indispensable if any success is to be achieved. The challenge of going the last mile is creating the conditions for these smallholder farmers to be as productive as possible, so they can eliminate the hunger season and feed their families throughout the year and add to the global food supply.

Since the majority of these farmers are women, this will mean not only overcoming decades of neglect of smallholder farmers in general, but also overturning generations of entrenched gender inequality. This inequality is evident in women generally having less access to the essential elements of farming: land ownership, seed and fertilizer, capital and credit, education and training.

"If we are going to ensure global food security and make tangible progress, women farmers are an essential part of the solution," Paul said.

"And it is important that we ask them what they need," Ritu added. "The solutions need to be in sync with women farmers."

"Giving them what they need, not what we think is right," Paul agreed. He pointed to a rural education center that Pioneer built on the advice of the farmers; the company then turned over the center to the local village.

The two leaders on the agricultural development front came together for a Chicago Council conversation shortly before the Symposium. They are both members of the advisory group of the Council's Global Agricultural Development Initiative.

One of the things women farmers say they most need is time. More time. Labor saving devices are at a premium. Like irrigation pumps that can bring water to the fields rather than the women having to haul it in buckets balanced on their heads. Like machines that grind the grains rather than the women having to do the arduous and tedious pounding themselves. Like better seeds that increase the yields of their work.

Just hauling water from a stream or a well, Ritu said, can consume the equivalent of 6 months of full time labor. It has been said, she noted, that the real energy crisis in the rural areas of the developing world is women's time. "They work 17 to 18 hours a day. The extra time they need to learn, to improve, comes out of something else. It is less time for water hauling, less time to care for sick children. Only then can they spend more time on their crops." She added: "Women farmers are agnostic about what is the right solution. They want to have access to all the solutions."

The solutions are so myriad, Paul said, "that no one can do it by themselves." Public-private partnerships are critical, he maintained, be they cooperative ventures with local schools, agricultural research institutions, seed producers, or 4-H clubs. "We need to have that collaboration," he said.

And, he added, they must be long-term programs that deal with the entire agricultural value chain at the same time. For instance, efforts that increase the access of women farmers to better seeds and fertilizer and farming advice, and thus lead to greater harvests, are wonderful. But they must also, at the same time, solve the problem of the woeful storage facilities of most smallholder farmers and the inefficient markets that are often unable to absorb any surplus production. "It will be a real tragedy if all this (production) rots," Ritu said.

This piece is part of a series of blogs by leading NGOs to call attention to a range of issues that should be raised at the G8 summit at Camp David in rural Maryland from May 18-19.

It is a matter of going the last mile literally and figuratively. "It's really important to expand our lens," Ritu added, "to see what's happening on a bigger scale."

One of those bigger scale items is ensuring that women farmers have greater access to land. In many countries in Africa, culture and tradition preserve land ownership for men.

"What we're seeing is more women having legal rights to land. Next will be inheritance rights," Ritu noted. "When women have joint title or sole title to land is when incentive begins. It makes no sense to improve the land if someone can just take it away."

Paul embraced the importance of creating incentive, noting it applies to large corporations as well as to women smallholder farmers. As land rights spread, so does respect for the rule of law, which is particularly attractive to investors. "With rule of law and a stable investment climate, businesses will invest and invest aggressively," he said.

Women owning land has benefits far beyond the field, reaching into the house and into the community. "Women having assets lessens potential for violence," Ritu said. "You see women playing a greater role in the household, in financial discussions." And in those discussions, women will generally demand that a greater share of the income goes to caring for their children.

"Let's make sure," Ritu said, "that at the last mile, women farmers do get their fair share of the land."

Roger Thurow, author of the new book The Last Hunger Season: A Year in an African Farm Community on the Brink of Change, is senior fellow for global agriculture and food policy at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

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