The most common tool in African agriculture is also the most impractical.  Or at least it appears to be.  It is the hoe, which is used for plowing, planting, weeding and harvesting.  It is a simple tool that produces the majority of the continent’s food, and yet it has remained unchanged over the centuries, defying any technological advance.

Consider that the golf club, the tool of the leisure class, has been the object of much attention and improvement in the past couple of decades.  The club face has been the object of high-tech research to refine the angle and shape, the shaft has been reinforced with all sorts of space-age materials.  And club architects have even lengthened the putter so the golfer, if so inclined, no longer needs to bend over the ball.

Not so the hoe.  No new metal compounds to toughen the blade or reinforce the handle have been developed.  Most curious is that on many African farms the handle remains short, just two or three feet in length.  This requires the farmer to bend deeply to work the soil.  It is back-breaking labor.

But what appears to be terribly awkward and impractical can also be seen as the most efficient and practical.  For it is women who do most of the farming, and often they do it with a swaddled baby on their backs.  Women farmers have told me how the bending position allows the baby to lie horizontally, blissfully sleeping while they work.  Also, the women say, they have to bend deeply in any case to properly nestle the seeds in the soil and pull the weeds and harvest the vegetables.  And, sadly, smallholder women farmers have been ignored by the private sector and largely deemed too poor and too remote to be worthy of technological innovation.

Thus the handle has remained short.  Except when wielded by men.  I have watched men farmers fashion longer handles, five or six feet in length, so they don’t have to bend so deeply in the fields.

Why, I’ve often been asked, is the farming in Africa mainly done by women?  A prime reason is that farming is mostly subsistence agriculture, and so it is seen as a menial task, like household chores.  Fetch the water, gather the firewood, tidy the compound, tend the crops – that is, in the main, the hard work of rural women.

But as more attention, and money, shifts to agricultural development, the role of women farmers becomes even more important and prized.  And the women themselves become more empowered, especially as their farming evolves from mere subsistence to sustainable and profitable, from farming to live to farming to make a living.

In the past year, while following the lives of smallholder African farmers in western Kenya, I witnessed this remarkable transformation and chronicle it in the book The Last Hunger Season, which will be published in May.  As subsistence crops become cash crops, providing money as well as food, the role of women in the households strengthens.  I sat in numerous conversations between husband and wife, where the woman’s view on crop selection was paramount.  The women were shaping the farming strategy, emphasizing crop diversity for better household nutrition and for more varied income.  And the women were full participants in discussions over how the farming income was spent; in all cases, they insisted that the money be used to improve nutrition for the children, pay for education and improve living conditions in the house.

These women would be grateful that their efforts – as Africa’s farmers – were at the center of so much discussion on International Women’s Day, which was celebrated this week.  My inbox filled with interesting observations:

There was an infographic from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and Farming First that explores the role of rural women in agriculture.  It is called “The Female Face of Farming” and can be found here.

From the NGO Landesa there was a video on the importance of land rights for women farmers that can be found here.

And from the Chicago Council’s Global Agricultural Development Initiative there was a new Issue Brief entitled “Ensuring the Success of Feed the Future:  Analysis and Recommendations on Gender Integration”.  It was authored by Ritu Sharma, cofounder and president of Women Thrive Worldwide, and can be found elsewhere on this site.

Hopefully, this bumper crop of attention will yield bumper crops of food – and ever more empowerment of the farmers.
 


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