*First appeared in Business Day – 3 August 2017

There was little mention of the fact that almost two-thirds of the 44,000 people who lost agricultural jobs in the first quarter of 2017 were women. This brought the number of women participating in the South African agricultural labour market to 278,000 in total, which equals a third of the sector’s total labour force.

It is distressing that women continue to be so vulnerable as workers, especially if we consider the role women play in the agricultural sector. As the World Farmers’ Organisation points out, 80% of Africa’s agricultural production is produced by smallholder farmers and a large part of it is by women.

These are important developments, not only because it is Women’s Month, but for the simple reason that we need diversity in all key positions of the agricultural sector. Crucially, as the sector continues to be viewed as an epicentre of growth and development in SA, it is important that diversity is prioritised along with these economic-growth ambitions.

On leadership roles, there has been progress in the past few years in increasing the number of women in management positions within the sector. Several national agricultural associations and organisations, such as Fruit SA, Grain SA’s farmer development programme and Agbiz Grain, have prominent women at the helm.

With regard to the national labour market, women remain in the minority as far as the agricultural sector employment figures are concerned, averaging 30% in Statistics SA’s database, which covers the past nine years.

The National Development Plan suggests that agriculture has the potential to create 1-million jobs by 2030. The view on whether this will be an attainable target is debatable, but the most important issue would be to explore ways of tackling gender disparities in these potential jobs so as to improve the proportion of women in the agricultural labour market in the next few years.

This should not only be limited to the labour market and farms, but also in public forums and policy discussion. Given the structure of agriculture in Africa, it is counterintuitive to continue seeing male domination in agricultural public and policy engagements. Apart from the gender equality argument, we are missing out on the potentially rich diversity of views and the vital learning that would otherwise emanate from the people who work the land, particularly in discussions regarding smallholder farmer development programmes, if women are underrepresented.

Diversity in representation could also be beneficial to policy makers as they will be able to calibrate well-informed development programmes for the sector if their consultations mirror its true gender structure. In a similar vein, for investors and development practitioners to maximise the opportunities in the sector, they should directly engage the people who are working the land.

On July 20, I chaired a session under the theme Towards a Food Secure 2030, organised by the Oliver and Adelaide Tambo Foundation in partnership with Absa Bank. On the panel, we had Absa Bank analyst Wessel Lemmer; Agri SA analyst Hamlet Hlomendlini; University of Fort Hare research professor Voster Muchenje; and farmer Sibuyiselwe Sontundu.

Sontundu is a successful young female farmer from Mqanduli in the Eastern Cape. In her introductory remarks, she told of how she got involved in the agricultural sector at an early age in 1999, with good support from the government and organised agriculture groups. Over the years, she managed to upskill herself and diversify her farming business. She produces grains and livestock and supplies local businesses.

Sontundu’s business might not be big when viewed on a national scale, but it certainly makes a big difference in the rural economy of Mqanduli.

What touched me is how she inspired some young women in the audience. The enthusiasm was clear from the number of questions that followed our discussion session. I am sure there are many more Sontundus out there, but some will fail to reach their full potential if they do not receive proper support from both the government and the private sector.

Muchenje also remarked that his classes were full of women who were pursuing scientific research aspects within the agricultural sector. They, too, require equal opportunities to share their knowledge and advance SA’s agricultural sector.

There is momentum in diversity discussions about the need to attract the youth to the sector and this needs to be held in conjunction with initiatives to diversify the agriculture sector and ensure participation by women.

Wandile Sihlobo (wandile@agbiz.co.za)