The aforementioned common wisdom has been at the core of efforts motivating alleviation of gender differences in African agriculture. There is indeed evidence (ungated and gated sources) of significant gender gaps in agricultural productivity in Africa, ranging from 4 to 25 percent. This evidence, together with the commonly held beliefs regarding African women’s contribution to agriculture, has provided ample motivation to advocate for policies that raise agricultural productivity for African women. The pursuit of this goal is not only seen as important for empowering women in Africa and improving the development outcomes for the next generation, but also for increasing Africa’s overall food supply.
So, what does this mean? First, the lower than expected female labor shares do not, as such, support disproportionate focus on female farmers to boost crop production. Concerted policy attention on women to boost agricultural output in Africa could still be argued for based on the gender gap in land productivity (estimated at 25 percent in Malawi, though less in other countries). Nonetheless, here as well, caution remains counseled. These gaps are largely calculated based on differences in land productivity between male- and female-managed plots. With at most 25 percent of the plots being female managed and productivity differences typically below 25 percent, closing the gender productivity gap would increase overall supply by 6.25 percent at most. There may be many other reasons to close the productivity gap, such as raising women’s empowerment, but boosting aggregate agricultural supply does not seem to one of them.
Second, the findings serve as an important warning for zombie statistics and cross-country generalizations. In hindsight, the 60-80 percent range should have raised questions long time ago. With only 50 percent of the population being female, and the majority of rural African households still engaged in agriculture, what would all the men be doing? It may obviously be true in certain settings and among certain population groups for women to provide the lion share of the labor in agriculture. But it is hard to believe this would hold systematically across countries and settings within countries. In the absence of hard data to refute such perceptions, zombie statistics will live on, underscoring the importance of nationally representative household surveys such as the LSMS-ISA.
But a real data revolution will be needed to get rid of the many possible zombie statistics. For example, what about the common perception that average fertilizer use per hectare is only 13 kg compared with about 120 kg in OECD countries? Also a zombie statistic? Stay tuned for the next blog in this myth-busting series.
This is the first of a series of blogs dissecting our commonly held beliefs about Africa’s agriculture and its farmers. They draw on the findings of the Agriculture in Africa – Telling Facts from Myths partnership project led by the Chief Economist Office of the Africa Region of the World Bank.
Palacios-Lopez, A., Christiaensen, L., and Kilic, T. (2015). "How much of the labor in African agriculture is provided by women?" World Bank Policy Research Working Paper No. 7282.
United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (1972). Human Resources Development Division. “Women: the neglected human resource for African Development.” Canadian Journal of African Studies, 6 (2), 359-370.