My dream for Africa: When women can be more than breadwinners

Documenting the impact of improved climbing beans in Rwanda. Photo by: Neil Palmer / CIAT

I grew up in a family where anyone can be a breadwinner. My father used to tell me I can make choices.

Outside my home in Cameroon and in most of Africa, though, the reality is different. The power to make important decisions within households rest almost entirely with men. Women generally take the backseat.

I see the same dynamics in farms. In Northern Ghana, for instance, the land is under the name of the men. Land is seen as something spiritual whose care is in the hands of the heads of households. The lack of title under her name means a woman can’t use the land as collateral to access financial and other services.

And so it’s the men who decide how much of the land will be used for farming and what inputs to use. But it is the women who do most of the tilling, planting, threshing, drying and harvesting. When it’s time to market the produce from farms, men again take over and determine what to do with the income.

That imbalance needs to change, as many others have urged. Evidence points to an increase in global productivity by as much as 30 percent if female farmers enjoy the same access to resources as their male counterparts. However, it must change without marginalizing the men.

I’m saying this as I’ve seen programs that aim to address gender disparity focus solely on improving the welfare of women but do not involve men. This perpetuates the misconception that gender equality equals women’s empowerment. That adds to the problem.

To correct the gender gap in agriculture, solutions should address the inequalities and promote partnerships between women and men.

Rwanda is taking the lead on this in Africa. According to The Global Gender Gap Report 2017, Rwanda is the fourth best country when it comes to gender parity. Its government mandates that women get 30 percent of decision-making positions in all institutions at all levels and considers women as the backbone of agriculture.

So it’s no wonder that gender is at the heart of any policy or strategy to modernize agriculture in Rwanda. Joint ownership between husband and wife is a norm, and either can use their land as collateral to secure loans so long as the other conforms.

I’ve personally seen the strides that Rwanda’s leadership has made in its efforts to address gender imbalance.

A few months ago, I, together with some colleagues at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), the Pan-Africa Bean Research Alliance (PABRA) and the Rwanda Agricultural Board (RAB), met in Kigali with those involved in the different stages of the bean value chain — from production to commercialization. The purpose was to discuss gender in Rwandan agriculture and explore how best to integrate it to bolster the bean sector in Africa.

Beans previously make for a subsistence crop that was meant mainly for household consumption in Africa. But they’re now a tradeable crop, with private sector entities becoming more and more interested in their byproducts that they may export.

During that meeting, the male participants told us that they viewed gender equality as women seeing themselves as equal to men, while the women said they thought of it as having equal power in deciding what to do with benefits they get from their farms, such as bean grains and income from the sale of beans. And although the male participants acknowledged that they continued to have the last word on how to share profits and other benefits from farms within their households, they pushed for giving women access to resources such as training so they can gain confidence to make similar decisions.

Beyond Rwanda, tipping the gender imbalance will require a different approach. I see mobile technology as a tool that can help in that.

Mastercard Lab focuses on financial inclusion for all smallholder farmers as well as connecting them to other value chain actors and service providers. We at CIAT and PABRA are developing a system with Mastercard Lab that will allow women to have access to financial services, incentivize them to save, and yet enable them to allocate a portion of the money to their spouses. It involves providing credit in combinations of cash, mobile money and bank deposits. With bank deposits and mobile money, women will have something that they own and control. With cash, they can share the money with their husbands, as in most cases, men would demand to have a share of whatever money their wives have in hand.

With that, my hope is one day African women will grow up in families like mine. This way they can also be more than breadwinners. That they can make choices that affect their lives and that of their families.

About the author:

Eileen Bogweh Nchanji is a gender specialist in the African regional office at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) working with the Pan African Bean Alliance and the CGIAR Research Program on Grain Legumes. She has worked with other international organizations like the Center for International Forestry Research on climate change and adaptation, urban food governance and gender mainstreaming. She holds a PhD in social anthropology from the University of Goettingen, Germany.