Promising Approaches to Address the Needs of Poor Female Farmers: Resources, Constraints, and Interventions

Published: January 2009

This paper critically reviews attempts to increase poor female farmers' access to, and control of, productive resources in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. It surveys the literature from 1998 to 2008 that describes interventions and policy changes across several key agricultural resources, including land, soil, and water; labor-saving technologies; improved varieties; extension services; and credit. Main questions: (1) Are women more constrained in access to, and control of, productive resources? (2) What are the key intervention strategies to address constraints to accessing such resources? (3) What are some of the promising approaches that have been used in the field? and (4) Have those approaches been rigorously evaluated, and what are the implications for scaling up?

Key Findings

  • In Kenya, women who had less education than men excelled in the uptake of soil fertility replenishment technologies as long as explanations were given in the simplest terms possible. In fact, qualitative data suggest that the women understood the technologies better than the men did.
  • an important resource -- social networks -- can be better exploited to diffuse information.
  • Women's roles as primary caregivers and health risks associated with childbearing also lead to intermittency in employment, which makes them risky clients for banks.
  • Female farmers face many gender-specific barriers to accessing markets. These include culturally inappropriate modes of transportation for women, such as trucks or motorcycles; physical harassment by market or health officials when the high cost of permits leads women to market their wares outside market boundaries; time burdens that constrain women from seeking the best prices for their output; and even marital conflict if fluctuating prices lead a husband to believe that his wife is withholding money from him because she brought home more money on previous trips to the market.
  • As high-value agriculture assumes more importance in many parts of the world, new opportunities in export-oriented agricultural markets, such as horticulture, are created for women. Yet such jobs are often low paid, informal, and insecure and do not provide enough income for women to escape poverty.
  • Group-based programs should include institutional mechanisms that enable women to join groups and remain active members.
  • Women's inclusion in groups leads to better governance practices.
  • In the short run, efforts need to be taken to overcome basic constraints imposed by lack of access to land and low levels of schooling.
  • Women are often disadvantaged in both statutory and customary land tenure systems. They have weak property and contractual rights to land, water, and other natural resources. Even where legislation may be in place to strengthen women's property rights, lack of legal knowledge and weak implementation may limit women's ability to exercise their rights.
  • As regards soil fertility, since female farmers have less access than males to credit and cash, they apply less fertilizer, and obtain lower yields and incomes as a result.
  • Gender analysis is still largely absent in the water sector because water projects are highly technical and implemented by engineers who lack the training to integrate gender concerns.
  • The poorest members of the community and women are often excluded from accessing irrigated water through criteria stipulating that users must own land (as opposed to using it) and be heads of household.
  • Water projects that can help women meet other livelihood needs are likely to be more sustainable than projects focused only on domestic water supplies.
  • Low levels of human capital -- such as that embodied in years of schooling, health, and nutritional status -- constrain poor rural women in their multiple roles as agricultural producers, workers, mothers, and caregivers.
  • Increasing the levels of human capital embodied in future generations of female farmers needs to begin with investments in young girls' schooling.
  • A shift toward greater focus on female health and nutrition through the life cycle, as opposed to the traditional concerns with maternal nutrition during pregnancy and lactation, would benefit women more directly. Adolescent girls are a group that deserves attention.
  • Given that gender norms discourage more equal sharing of home production activities between men and women, women will not be able to allocate their time to more productive (or remunerative) uses unless their labor productivity increases through the design and adoption of culturally appropriate technologies.
  • Gender-differentiated preferences cannot be assumed but, rather, are influenced by crop use, locale, and the gender division of labor.
  • Women may be better able to adopt high-value crops that do not require large initial investments or asset ownership, since women's access to credit is more constrained than men's.
  • The introduction of new technologies may shift the gender division of labor, providing women with more control of resources or, alternatively, taking away their gains.
  • Traditional agricultural extension systems still do not pay adequate attention to gender, nor recognize the importance of women's social networks for information diffusion.
  • Recruiting and training female extension workers, particularly in areas where cultural norms restrict male-female interaction, can increase women's participation in extension activities and their adoption of new technologies.

Populations Poor, Rural, Women

Industries Agriculture/Food Processing

Publishers International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI)

Geographic Focus Africa (Sub-Saharan), Asia (Southern)