*This first appeared in Business Day on 26 October 2017.

Strategic interventions should be informed by facts in order to be effective in addressing societal challenges. This rings true to the gender debate in the agricultural sector. Many researchers (myself included) have been arguing that women should get more support if we are to boost Africa’s crop production, owing to the role that female farmers play in agricultural crop production.

This argument is typically premised on the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) documents which suggest that 80% of Africa’s agricultural production comes from small farmers, who are mostly rural women. Concurring with this notion is the World Farmers Organisation, which argues that “women comprise the largest percentage of the workforce in the African agricultural sector, but do not have access and control over all land and productive resources.”

Against this backdrop, the World Bank released a book earlier this week which questions a number of datasets and statements about Africa’s agricultural sector. The book is titled Agriculture in Africa: Telling Myths from Facts. It covers a wide range of topics from smallholder farmer land access, financing of agricultural inputs, labour productivity and women’s work in agriculture amongst others.

Having recently written a column on women’s contribution to the agricultural sector, I was quickly drawn in on the chapter that dealt with the subject. The first thing which stood out was the notion that the figure often cited, namely, that roughly 80% of agricultural labour input in Africa is by women, is flawed. The book puts women’s share of labour in crop production at an average of 40%, with variations across countries. Worth noting, however, is that the data does not cover the entire continent, but selected countries, namely: Ethiopia, Malawi, Niger, Nigeria, Tanzania and Uganda. With that said, these countries cover a wide extent of the continent’s farming zones.

Across the aforementioned countries, the highest share of women’s contribution to agricultural labour is 56% in Uganda, with the lowest being 24% in Niger. Although there is room for error in these survey results, the data is nonetheless illuminating and poses bigger questions about the support systems and strategies that will be necessary to increase Africa’s food supply. Should support systems be focused on women empowerment or be inclusive to anyone that produces food for the continent? Another salient point in the book is the need to focus on tapping into the biggest source of under-utilised human capital, which at this stage is the unemployed youth, in order to promote food production.

Overall, the key takeaway from the World Bank’s book is that strategic interventions need to be backed by solid research as incorrect assumptions could have long-term implications for society. For instance, based on the aforementioned flawed labour statistics, men would find themselves at the lower end of agricultural support systems. However, in light of this new data, the focus should rather be at calibrating more gender inclusive policies and also prioritise youth involvement. In countries such as South Africa where farmers are ageing with the average age estimated at 62, youth involvement in food production will be key for long-term sustainability.

The commonly held view is that young people show little interest in the agricultural sector – preferring sophisticated office jobs. On face value, this notion is plausible. But there is limited evidence to support the claim. Anecdotally, I have met a number of young South Africans who are motivated and interested in joining the agricultural sector. All ask the same questions: Where do we start? Is it possible to access productive land and some mentorship? Therefore, the ideas that young people are not interested in agriculture needs to be probed further, and support needs to be mobilised to get the youth to be more agriculturally active.

Overall, my take considering the book’s findings is that development strategies in the agricultural sector should be more inclusive across gender and age spectrum. Then again, from a continuity perspective, perhaps the youth should be the priority, as we are a young continent, with ageing farmers.

Link to an online piece:
https://www.businesslive.co.za/bd/opinion/columnists/2017-10-26-wandile-sihlobo-new-world-bank-book-shows-value-of-data-in-farming-interventions/