Message to Southern Africa leaders: invest in women and smallholder farmers

From the 17-18 August 2015, SADC (Southern African Development Community) Heads of State will be meeting in Gaborone, Botswana, for their 35th Ordinary Summit. SADC member states will take key decisions that will determine the direction of development and integration in the region. When Presidents Mugabe, Khama and Zuma sit down with other regional leaders to thrash out the details of key policy proposals, the centrality of one issue should be elevated above all others: the importance of investment in women and smallholder farmers

Smallholder farmers, and women in particular, are the future of agricultural development in Southern Africa. Despite rapid urbanisation, around three quarters of Sub-Saharan Africans still reside in the rural areas and rely on agriculture for their livelihoods. 

South African leaders must support women farmers.

Agriculture is a driver of economic growth, food security and well-being. Studies show that smallholder farmers dominate productive agricultural activities and form a majority of the labour market in SADC countries. Investment in smallholder agriculture can empower farmers to produce more food and develop local markets – supporting food security. 

However, smallholders have struggled to match the productivity figures of farmers on other continents – around 250 million smallholders across sub-Saharan Africa harvest less than a tonne of cereal crops from each hectare. This is just a fifth of the global average. 

This challenge is one of agronomy, but also of humanitarian and economic importance. 

Between a quarter to a half of the population of countries such as Zambia, Malawi and Mozambique are classified as being chronically undernourished – a direct result of unequal access to resources, and the difficulties that rural dwellers face in accessing financial resources and government support for agriculture. A report released by Oxfam this week shows that women own or manage less than a quarter of total agricultural land in many countries across Southern Africa. 

The impact of climate change on crops such as maize, millet and sorghum is likely to be uneven across Southern Africa – but it will only exacerbate risks for many.  

A warming climate means more people go hungry.

The good news is that we know the answer to many of these challenges.

Providing equal access to resources such as inputs and credit for women smallholder farmers can increase productivity and reduce levels of hunger. A report from the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) shows that such measures could increase yields by 20-30 per cent globally. This figure does not include the additional benefits that could be gained by supporting equal access to land for women, for example. 

Increasing government investment in the agricultural sector is also vital. In 2003 and 2014, the African Union (AU) member states made commitments to increase their budgetary allocations to agriculture to at least 10 % of their national budgets. However, implementation has been weak. Government investment in rural infrastructure, support services for farmers and linking farmers to markets to sell their produce can power economic growth and poverty reduction. 

But top line investment on its own will not be enough. SADC leaders need to do far more to understand the constraints faced by the agricultural sector. Often, crude policy measures such as subsidies for fertiliser have improved production levels but locked smallholder farmers into growing low-value staple goods with poor returns. Such subsidies are also notoriously difficult to remove without significant pain for the poorest in society. 

South African leaders must act

In Botswana next week, there should be three key priority areas for immediate action from SADC leaders. 

1. Land rights

The first is to put in place a plan to strengthen land rights for rural communities in Southern Africa. In the absence of secure land tenure, smallholders and women farmers will struggle to utilise credit for farming activities or feel encouraged to invest in their land. In this regard, securing land tenure for smallholders and pro-poor agricultural development go hand in hand. 

2. Financial support

Second, SADC policymakers should move beyond rhetoric to put in place specific budget allocations directed towards the needs of women smallholder farmers. This process will involve a proactive listening exercise to determine the key structural constraints faced by women in rural communities. A political signal that SADC member states will meet the 10 per cent spending target on agriculture set out by African Union, with a measurable timeline, would be useful in this regard. 

3. Non-fiscal support

Third, there are a number of other non-fiscal measures that could be usefully deployed to support smallholder farmers. For example, tax breaks or direct subsidies can support smallholders to move from the production of staple crops to higher value horticulture or livestock production. Government could also use spending to reduce the risk for commercial finance to provide loans to smallholder farmers or women-led enterprise.  

While the Southern African Development Community does not, and cannot, be expected to hold all of the answers to the multiple challenges faced by rural communities in Southern Africa – its role as a political organ should not be underestimated. By sending a political signal that smallholders are the future of agriculture development in the region – SADC policymakers could point towards a pathway that has proven benefits in other contexts – driving economic growth, improving food security and securing prosperity in the region. 

These measures make good economic sense – but they are also a humanitarian imperative. 

This entry posted by Daniela Costa (@Danipcosta), Regional Director of Oxfam in Southern Africa, on 14 August 2015.

Photo: Barbara Chinyeu (36) is a widow who risks her life every day to irrigate her crops and feed her two children. She lives in Chiawa, Zambia, a rural area with few transport links and employment opportunities. "We carry containers to get water from the Zambezi river. It’s just me. It’s very difficult. If you are unlucky you can be eaten by the crocodiles in the river. I know a lot of people who have been killed. I go there every day to collect water – there’s no alternative." Credit: Abbie Trayler-Smith/Oxfam

What you can do now

Join our call to African leaders to support women food producers coping with climate change.

South African governments should invest in women farmers.


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