Nothing About Us, Without Us: Placing African women at the centre of conversations about the African agricultural revolution
In October 2014 UN Women with the African Union (AU), IFAD, FAO and WFP co-hosted an exciting regional Sharefair for Rural Women’s Technologies at the UN Compound in Gigiri, Nairobi- Kenya. The innovations showcased have tremendous potential to improve the lives of African women smallholder farmers.
I got to address the plenary session and focused my attention on African the loud silence of women’s missing voices in the African agricultural sector. Below is the full text of my speech:
Nothing About Us, Without Us
As a young girl I remember my parents taking me to what was then the Nairobi ‘show’ put together by the Agricultural society of Kenya. I was mesmerised by all the products on offer, the balloons, the toys, and, as always, the junk food.
Those early days going to the ‘show’ bred in me a passion for agriculture that has surprised even my parents. Brought up in the concrete jungle that is Nairobi’s Eastlands, nobody expected me to care about agriculture.
Yet here I am. My favorite thing is grow my own food and whenever I can, I like to take my son to agricultural fairs. Its our special bonding time.
Agriculture has the power to connect the spirit and the body in powerful ways. Agriculture has the power to inspire a young generation.
A young generation who, like my unborn child, are facing an uncertain food future in Africa.
We are facing a serious challenge; Africa needs to increase food production by 260% by the year 2050 if we are to feed ourselves and our children.
Even as we focus on increased food production its important that we focus on HOW we do this.
If we are not careful we might end up increasing food production to feed the world as African children die of hunger.
Its important that this increase in food production not just be for export but that we increase food production so that we feed Africans.
As some of you know, I am new to the Agriculture sector, having taken the helm of AWARD only seven months ago. Before that I served as an Asst Prof of Political Science at the university of San Francisco and the director of Akili Dada, a young women’s leadership incubator.
In the seven months since I have joined the agriculture sector I have heard a lot about how we are going to need to innovate so as to meet the challenge of feeding Africa.
We have also been told that African women are a critical component in unlocking Africa’s agricultural potential.
I must admit, however, that, even as we talk about how important African women are to the agricultural revolution at hand, I have been surprised at how often African women are talked ABOUT rather than occupying the podium and actually speaking to the issues. It is, in some spaces, perfectly ok to have a panel about African women in Agriculture without any African women present!
That is why I’m thrilled to be here with you. At an event that places African women’s voices at the center of the agriculture conversation.
From my prior background in academia and then working in women’s rights I know that if we are not intentional in our focus on women they get forgotten.
Today I would like to share with you three key areas that I believe are critical to pay particular attention to women and for women’s voices to be heard:
It is surprising to me that its only recently that the key players in the agriculture sector have began talking about the critical links between agriculture and nutrition.
Indeed I believe the decades-long silence and failure to connect the dots between agricultural production and human nutrition is a direct result of the marginalization of women’s voices within the larger agricultural ecosystem.
If we had been listening to women’s voices all along we wouldn’t just now be discovering how important nutrition is in the conversation about increasing food production.
Mechanization: There is a strong argument that for African Agriculture to really take off, we need to mechanize. I have heard it said that we need to relegate the hoe to the museums of history. That my unborn son will need to go to the Nairobi National Museum to see what a jembe or a panga used to look like and how they were used. Right next to the primitive stones that pre-historic humans in this region used to hunt those millions of years ago.
Unfortunately, Too often conversations about mechanization of African agriculture are conversations about big tractors to farm massive trackts of land.
And that is where we need to be careful. Because if we refuse to see African women, if we refuse to acknowledge the conditions under which African women farm, we will fail to connect the dots between women’s lack of access to land, and the proposed mechanical tools.
In being enamored by the big shiny new tractors, we can fail to see the ways that most African women engaged in agriculture farm smaller tracts of land and don’t have access to the financing it takes to purchase the big machines.
I am heartened to be here and to see the focus on accessible technologies and machines. Modern tools that women can use and use now. We must make sure that investments in these tools continue.
Access to finance: There is emerging conversations about how to improve African farmer’s access to finance so as to ensure that they can participate effectively in markets. Again reforming our financial sectors to address the needs of farmers is critical.
But we must also be careful that we pay attention to where women farmers are located in this space. We risk serious failures if we create farming finance systems that don’t pay attention to the ways that patriarchy functions in our communities. It is critical, as we design farming finance, to set aside funds that specifically target women and that help women leverage on their particular assets, be it social connections, labour, or small animals. Farming finance that requires title deeds as collateral will, from the beginning, be designed to marginalize women.
Women at the table:
We also know that for women not to fall out of these critical discussions, women MUST be at the decision making table.
We also know that in Africa today only 1 in 4 agricultural scientists is a woman and the numbers are even worse when it comes to leadership where only 1 in 7 is a leader. If you have a room of 7 core leaders making decisions on what new seed varieties should be developed, what new methods of financing we should adopt for rural agriculture, only one of those decision makers will be a woman. That is where we must drive change.
AWARD’s work is critical in driving change. We are working to ensure that African women scientists have the advanced science skills, the professional networks, the mentoring, and the leadership skills they need to make a real difference in the African Agricultural ecosystem.
But the task ahead does not just belong to AWARD.
Its critical that we invest in girls and young women to ensure that they make it to the agricultural sciences, to agribusiness, and to agricultural financing.
That is why experiences like the sharefair are critical. I guarantee you that there is a girl or a young woman who has passed by here today whose life has changed. Who has become inspired to pursue agriculture as a passion.
She may be the next winner of the World Food Prize, the next minister of agriculture in any of our countries, or the next president.