Women farmers challenge world leaders to change climate agenda

When 38-year-old Burtikan Dagnachew won the Female Food Hero Award in 2013, it was more than just recognition for the work she had done as a woman farmer: it was the impetus for even greater achievements. Dagnachew hails from the village of Gola Mechare in the Amhara region in Northern Ethiopia, which is considered to be one of the worst areas for agriculture due to recurring droughts. 

Oxfam launched the Female Food Hero Award in 2011 as a contest to give African women farmers - often the unsung heroes in the production of food - recognition. It has, over the past four years, become a platform for a new breed of activist in the fight against climate change.

The Female Food Heroes Award has not only given women like Burtikan a voice but has also made them aware of the impact of climate change on their communities. Burtikan says: “Life has changed a lot for me since then. And, because of my experience and training, I am taking care of myself, my family and sharing my experiences in working for food security with my community.”

Since its introduction in Tanzania, the annual Female Food Heroes competition now takes place in many countries around the world and showcases the significant role that women play in sustainable food security. Oxfam America’s Seble Teweldbirhan says: “We call Birtukan a hero because of her resilience in that area by building a water shade and being open-minded about using new mechanisms and technologies to help her adapt climate change.“Burtikan, who is also an ardent tree-planter, is famous in her village for speaking out about protecting the environment and working to reverse the damage,” she adds.

According to a recent publication by Oxfam , climate change is already eroding food production in Africa and will continue to hit the continent hardest, increasing food insecurity where it is already amongst the worst in the world. 

Joining their voices with others across the continent as part of the Women Food Climate campaign activities, Female Food Heroes are calling for support for women smallholder producers, who are on the front lines in facing climate change impacts. This week Burtikan participated in the “We Feed the Planet” event as part of the Expo Milano 2015, whilst in Nigeria the season finale of the competition was held  on the International Day of Rural Women on October 15th, and was presided over by Nigeria’s first lady, Aisha Buhari’ who was also named the Ambassador of the Ogbonge Women.

In Nigeria the annual competition has been running since 2012, attracting close to 4000 entrants in 2015 alone. Monica Maigari from Madakiya, Kaduna state, who was the 2014 runner-up, used her prize money to acquire land in her community: “Now that I own a piece of land, young people in my community will have more work to do and more money in their pocket”. 

Nigeria, Africa’s largest economy more famous for its oil industry, is home to more than 170 million people. Agriculture is a vital part of the economy, comprising more about 22% of all economic activity and more importantly, providing 70% of all employment. This year Nigeria has allocated only 0.89 percent of its national budget to agriculture.

Oxfam’s Country Director in Nigeria, Jan Rogge says that “Women provide most of the labour in the sector, but get little recognition and little support, something that these awards are working to change”.

The local brand name, Ogbonge women, means ‘resilient and who is someone strong’ says Abdulazeez Musa of Oxfam, a quality which deserves celebrating, but also needs to be supported. ‘Women are living with the reality of climate change. They may not name it as climate change but the rains are not coming as usual and the patterns are different and this is their reality they live with in Nigeria’ says Musa.

While the past two years have been a steep learning curve for Burtikan, she remains committed: “The lesson is that we have to keep working hard, adopting new and modern mechanisms in our farming, learn to adapt and cope with climate change, and help each other at the village level to do better.” As with previous life changing trips to the States, Burtikan has used the trip to Italy for the Expo Milano, the largest-ever event organized on food and nutrition, to learn from this global showcase of new agriculture technologies.

But Burtikan believes that political will is also important: “We actually need the political will, and better policy and implementation mechanisms at a higher level, so that our lives can improve.” In Ethiopia, the majority of climate change related actions are domestically funded through an estimated $440m every year – accounting for 14.5 percent of the national budget. This amount for one year is more than Ethiopia has received in total from international climate finance.

As world leaders prepare for the Conference of the Parties (COP 21) in Paris in December to hammer out a climate deal, Female Food Heroes and others from across the continent are asking those representing Africa to take a bold stance. They are hoping the Paris Agreement will deliver an increase in funding for African countries to adapt and that those funds will prioritize women farmers’ needs.

This entry posted by Crystal Orderson, a South African journalist, on 16 October 2015.

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