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Critical evaluation of the impact of the reduction of gender inequalities within rural sub-Saharan African communities in promoting agricultural productivity

Author Name: Alexandra Growden, BSc (Hons) Agriculture



The relationship between gender and development is increasingly recognised within discussions regarding sub-Saharan Africa, with the empowerment of women cited as a prerequisite for widespread agricultural growth. Gender disparity continues to affect women’s opportunities through limited access to productive assets and lack of control over household finances and decision-making power. However, gender-specific project design can help to reduce these constraints and increase women’s empowerment and social standing. This article discusses findings from a review of key literature to address the need for a greater understanding of gender dimensions within rural sub-Saharan African communities. The impact and limitations of agricultural extension work are discussed, with findings suggesting joint participation to be beneficial for women’s empowerment. The role of social protection programmes in reducing women’s vulnerability to shocks were additionally found to be key contributors to agricultural productivity. Further research into the long-term effect of gender specific project design was concluded to be essential for continued implementation of programmes that support women and their communities in the agricultural sector.


1.0 Introduction

The impact of gender inequality in relation to agricultural productivity and food security is increasingly recognised within discussions concerning sub-Saharan Africa (Borda-Rodriguez and Vicari, 2014, Johnson et al., 2016, WFP, 2015). Gender relations within rural communities are largely defined by patriarchy and embedded in social and cultural norms (Lecoutere, 2017, WFP, 2015). Women are estimated to provide approximately 40% of overall labour in crop production (FAO, 2011) whilst facing constraints such as limited access to productive assets (Njuki et al., 2014), lack of decision making power (Alwang et al., 2017) and lack of control over household finances (Jones et al., 2017).

Recent research has suggested that if women had the same resource access and opportunities as men, then yields would increase by 20 – 30% (FAO, 2011, Jones et al., 2017, WFP, 2015). This has led to increased concern regarding the importance of women’s socio and economic empowerment as a prerequisite for sustainable development (Alwang et al., 2017, Johnson et al., 2016, Palacios-Lopez, 2017, Theriault, 2017), with reductions in gender inequality suggested to promote agricultural productivity, economic growth and reduce poverty (Lecoutere, 2017, Ndiritu, 2014). Current research highlights the need for a greater understanding of gender dimensions to enable better design of effective policies that reduce the gender gap (Theriault, 2017). This will contribute to global food security through increasing Africa’s food supply and enabling farmers to access wider markets, improving development outcomes for the next generation (Kilic et al., 2015, WFP, 2015).

The primary objective of this article is to highlight current studies that demonstrate impact on the reduction of gender inequalities within sub-Saharan Africa and the resulting increase in agricultural productivity (Hotz et al., 2012, Lambrecht et al., 2017). The article seeks to draw on findings from a review of key literature to address the need for a greater understanding of gender dimensions. This will enable more effective design and implementation of programmes supporting women and their communities in the agricultural sector (Jones et al., 2017, Lecoutere, 2016, Njuki et al., 2014).


2.0 Critical Review

2.1 Agricultural Extension Work

The role of extension work in international development is increasingly cited as an important tool for improving agricultural productivity (Chagwiza et al., 2016), providing arenas whereby gender norms can be questioned (Lecoutere, 2017) and enabling women to gain increased access to productive assets (Borda-Rodriguez and Vicari, 2014). Various studies have investigated the impact of extension services such as agricultural co-operatives or non-governmental organisation project implementation (Abebaw and Haile, 2013, Lambrecht et al., 2016, Lecoutere, 2016, Njuki et al., 2014), but further research into their efficacy and the reliability of data collected on women’s empowerment and resulting agricultural productivity is required to continue to facilitate effective programme planning (WFP, 2015).


2.1.1     Potential Impact of Agricultural Extension Work

A recent study conducted by Lecoutere (2017) in the Bukedea district of Eastern Uganda focusing on sunflower production as an economic enterprise suggested that co-operative membership had a positive effect on women’s empowerment on household, group and community decision making levels, resulting in increased agricultural productivity (Lecoutere, 2017). Similarly, Njuki et al., (2014) investigated gender-wise ownerships of water pumps and agricultural related decisions following implementation of an irrigation technology project. In contrast to findings by Lecoutere (2017), data collected from 27 focus group discussions (FGD) concluded that many of the decisions on crop choices and income continued to be made by men following the projects’ application and women’s ownership of pumps. However, since only a small number of women (estimated in the region of 11 – 22) took up ownership of the pumps, the influence of ownership on decision making cannot be treated as conclusive (Njuki et al., 2014). Despite this, qualitative data was subject to a content analysis technique which enabled effective identification of data properties and categorisation allowing for reliable conclusions regarding the project’s effect on women’s decision-making ability and ownership of assets, enabling a greater understanding of the factors contributing to gender disparity (Njuki et al., 2014).

The study by Lecoutere (2017) provided more reliable conclusions by performing a difference-in-differences (DiD) analysis of data collected from an individual survey among the Popular Knowledge Women’s Initiative Farmer to Farmer Co-operative Society (P’KWI). A representative sample group was used consisting of 176 members and 111 non-members randomly selected from 10 geographical clusters in which the group operates. Whilst the larger overall sample size used by Njuki et al., (2014) of 87 women and 113 men in Tanzania and 69 women and 96 men in Kenya provided a wider sample group than that of Lecoutere (2017), only members of the project were included in the FGD and data was not subject to DiD analysis. However, in the Lecoutere (2017) study a more accurate picture was provided of the differences between women’s empowerment before and after extension services, in which all women members surveyed participated in sunflower production.


2.1.2     Possible Limitations of Agricultural Extension Work

In addition to previously cited studies exploring the effect of extension work on the reduction of gender inequality and the resulting increase in agricultural productivity, there is evidence suggesting the limitations of agricultural extension work (Lecoutere, 2017, Ndiritu et al, 2014, Njuki et al., 2014). This is particularly evident in rural communities where gender biases are deep rooted in cultural and societal norms (Theriault, 2017).

These factors are cited in a study by Abebaw and Haile (2013) which used cross-sectional data and propensity score matching technique to assess the impact of cooperatives on the adoption of agricultural technologies. The study, based on a large sample size of 965 households in Ethiopia, suggested that cooperative members were more likely to be male-head households. This was consistent with previously cited studies showing that despite further understanding of gender inequalities and marked societal changes, gender bias continues to be prevalent within cooperative membership following effective programme implementation, reinforcing the need for a greater understanding of gender dimensions (Njuki et al., 2014).

The study further discussed the impact that geographic location had on cooperative membership, with households living further away from local markets less likely to participate (Abebaw and Haile, 2013). Similarly, this is addressed in a study by Lambrecht et al., (2016) which investigated the impact of gender segregated participation in an agricultural extension programme within the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. The study concluded that farmers in villages further away from the cooperative base were less likely to participate (Lambrecht et al., 2016), a factor unrelated to gender which was not considered in data analysis of previous studies by Lecoutere (2017) or Njuki et al., (2014).

Further limitations to agricultural extension work cited by Lambrecht et al., (2016) included results suggesting female participation to be unnecessary for the adoption of capital-intensive technologies such as chemical fertiliser application, which aimed to increase agricultural productivity. Data were collected from 420 households, using a significantly wider sample size than that of Lecoutere (2017) or Njuki et al., (2014) and provided a more comprehensive database through supporting household surveys with a village survey, complementary FGD and stakeholder interviews. Research did suggest, however, in line with previously cited studies that female participation was conducive for the adoption of labour-intensive technologies such as row planting. A recent study by Ndiritu et al., (2014) using disaggregated survey data from 2687 plot observations explored systematic gender differences in the adoption of sustainable agricultural intensification practices in Kenya. This study found that there were no gender differences in the adoption of fertilisers, with fertiliser use more likely to be dependent on access to resources rather than gender, as illustrated in Table 1.


Table 1: Multivariate Probit Model Results from 2687 Plot Observations Exploring Systematic Gender Differences in Sustainable Agricultural Intensification Practices in Kenya (Adapted from Ndiritu et al., 2014).

 Table 1


2.1.3     Joint Ownership and Participation

The benefits of joint participation have been recognised by Hotz et al., (2012) in a two-year study promoting the production and consumption of orange sweet potato in Eastern and Central Uganda. Results found that land owned by joint male and female headed households showed increased adoption of techniques taught through the HarvestPlus project, in contrast to the reduced probability of project adoption for land controlled exclusively by men.

Similarly, Lambrecht et al., (2016) found that encouraging joint female and male participation and ownership resulted in the highest adoption rates of agricultural technology. This suggests the opportunity for programmes providing agricultural extension work to focus on policies that promote joint participation and ownership of assets to effect change and increase productivity (WFP, 2015). This is further supported by evidence from Ndiritu et al, (2014) which found a significant difference in the uptake of maize-legume rotations, improved seeds and maize-legume intercropping in households with joint ownership (see Table 1) compared with that of male headed households.

However, whilst a study by Van den Bold et al., (2015) analysing impact of an integrated agriculture and nutrition programme in Burkina Faso on women’s and men’s assets, found significant changes in asset ownership in treatment areas, there was no difference in households that were jointly owned. Furthermore, due to it being a pilot two-year study it is unsure whether changes in asset ownership and control will be sustained, particularly due to the complexities of cultural gender norms (Van den Bold et al., 2015). This is supported by research conducted by Anderson et al, (2017) which found there to be a lack of intra-household accord over agriculture-related decisions. The study used a large sample size of 1,851 households in Tanzania distributed across 102 districts, and whilst it was not nationally representative due to being restricted to mainland rural areas, it provides reliable data on problems that may arise for interventions seeking to encourage joint participation.


2.2     Social Protection Programmes

Agriculture-led social protection programmes aim to increase food security through reducing vulnerability to risks such as those related to market or household (Daidone et al., 2017). These typically focus on preventive, protective, promotive and transformative modes of action such as input subsidies, asset insurance or cash transfers (Devereaux, 2016, FAO, 2013). Increasingly, social protection programme design and implementation acknowledges the different risks and vulnerabilities women face in comparison to men (Datzberger and Le Mat, 2018), working to increase resilience to vulnerabilities that arise from factors such as lower status and limited decision-making ability (Forbes-Genade and Niekerk, 2017, Jones et al., 2017).

Covarrubias et al., (2012) used survey instruments to explore the impact of the Malawi Social Cash Transfer (SCT) scheme in providing capital to 751 poor households over a period of one year. Results showed agricultural tool and livestock ownership to be positively impacted for female headed households following the SCT implementation, as illustrated in Table 2, with significant differences reported from DiD analysis indicated in bold. This suggests an increase in agricultural productivity due to women being given control of assets (in this case, capital), corresponding to findings of Lecoutere (2017) which generated a similar picture of differences between women’s empowerment and access to productive assets before and after input through detailed DiD analysis. However, whilst longitudinal datasets used by Covarrubias et al., (2012) provided indicators of the productive impact of the programme, the specific impact on input use or yield was unquantifiable as none of the questionnaires collected detailed information which would have been beneficial to future programme planning.


Table 2: Impacts on Productive Assets Following Social Cash Transfer Implementation According to Household Head Gender (Adapted from Covarrubias et al., 2012)

Table 2

In addition to these findings, Fisher et al., (2017) conducted research under the “From Protection to Production” (PtoP) three-year multi-country initiative which carried out six cash transfer projects in the six sub-Saharan African countries of Kenya, Ethiopia, Malawi, Lesotho, Zimbabwe and Ghana. Cross-case analysis of qualitative data on perspectives from each country suggested that an integrated awareness of gender issues and dynamics contributed significantly to a higher adoption of agricultural technologies. This provides further evidence supporting the view that gender-aware project design and data collection can positively impact agricultural intensification in sub-Saharan African communities.


3.0 Conclusion

The relationship between gender and development is being redefined and challenged through recent research and literature, with the empowerment of women increasingly recognised as a prerequisite for widespread agricultural growth. Despite marked societal changes, gender limitations continue to be prevalent within rural Sub-Saharan African communities due to the complexity of prevailing issues and embedded cultural norms. This has resulted in a distinct lack of women’s access to productive assets and decision-making power on both household and community levels. However, opportunities such as agricultural extension work can reduce gender biases and benefit women’s social standing, particularly when joint participation is encouraged. In addition, social protection programmes targeting the different risks women face can increase food security through reducing women’s vulnerability to shocks. Further research into the complexities of cultural norms and the geographical location of projects are important for a greater understanding of gender dimensions and agricultural programmes within rural communities, enabling continued growth within the agricultural sector on both local and global levels.



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