Killing the Zombie Statistic: Women Contribute 60-80 Percent of Labor in African Agriculture


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How much of the work do women contribute to agriculture in Africa? Over the past decades, “60-80 percent” is the range that has regularly popped up--in celebrity speeches, policy conferences and international publications alike. This is what the Washington Post most recently referred to as a zombie statistic – a figure with little empirical verification that never seems to die out, but resurrects itself repeatedly in discussions and debates. Some forensics suggest that the figure can  be traced back to an undocumented, 1972 quote found in a more general study of women’s contribution to development,   “Few persons would argue against the estimate that women are responsible for 60-80 [percent] of the agricultural labour supplied on the continent of Africa.” (United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, 1972, p. 359). It has gone on to live its own life ever since. Intrigued by this rather unusually high number, we set out to revisit this statistic using nationally-representative data from six Sub-Saharan countries,  collected under the Living Standards Measurement Study – Integrated Surveys on Agriculture Initiative (LSMS-ISA). Together, they represent 40 percent of SSA’s population.
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.
Turns out that women contribute less than half of the labor to crop production, 40 percent on average across the six African countries studied, to be precise. This estimate is obtained using detailed household survey information about the labor input of each household member on each plot cultivated. There are clear differences across countries: women’s labor contribution to agriculture is slightly above 50 percent in Uganda, Tanzania and Malawi, and substantially lower in Nigeria (37 percent), Ethiopia (29 percent) and Niger (24 percent). However, in all cases it is well below the 60-80 percent range that is still widely quoted. There is no systematic difference across countries by crop type (cash versus staple crop) or activity (planting, weeding, harvesting), but female labor shares do tend to be higher when women own a larger share of the land and, surprisingly, also when they are more educated. Also, accounting for the gender and knowledge profile of the respondents does not meaningfully change the predicted female labor shares.
Source: Palacios-Lopez, Christiaensen, Kilic (2015)

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.



Talip Kilic

Senior Program Manager, Living Standards Measurement Study (LSMS), World Bank

Amparo Palacios-Lopez

Senior Economist, Living Standards Measurement Study (LSMS), World Bank

June 12, 2015

Luc and team: interesting post.
Please let me play devil's advocate using Tanzania whose surveys I know a bit better. In terms of overall female ag labor share you are spot on.
However, I found interesting in TZ that you could disaggregate ag labor supply into the phases of working the land. Females' labor supply was 50% for preparation, 72% for weeding, and only 27% for harvesting (overall labor share was 52% as you noted). My reading was that (1) men worked as hard as women to prepare the land (preparation: this is very hard work but probably ensure better productivity), (2) they left most of the weeding (not very rewarding) to women and actually children, and (3) they did most of the harvesting probably to control crop production.
I think adding land ownership could also give some perspective because women owned much less land but contributed equally in working it. In TZ men solely owned 47% of the cultivated land vs 15% for women; the remaining is co-owned with largely men as primary co-owners. So women provide half of the labor but own at most 34% of the land.
Can one say that the myth is "valid" in some areas of ag labor supply? This seems to hold at least in Tanzania and it would be great if you could replicate this for the other countries.
Please keep busting the zombie stats!!!

Monica Castillo
August 06, 2015

Thanks for this post. As a Senior Statistician in the Department of Statistics of the International Labour Organization, I have some questions regarding concept definitions and methods used to obtain the statistics in the article. The 19th International Conference of Labour Statisticians (ICLS) in October 2013 adopted a new Resolution concerning the measurement of work, employment and labour underutilization which, among other things, defined different forms of work including own-use production of goods (including subsistence foodstuff producers) separate from employment (which is now more narrowly defined as work for pay or profit) which is the new international statistical standard. The survey used for the statistics shared in the above article is best suited for measuring income (and poverty), but not for measuring employment and unpaid forms of work. The ILO is conducting pilot surveys in 10 countries across the globe to help us provide more specific guidelines to countries to implement the 19th ICLS Resolution.