Published on Africa Can End Poverty

Africa’s big gender gap in agriculture #AfricaBigIdeas

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Women are less productive farmers than men in Sub-Saharan Africa. A new evidence-based policy report from the World Bank and the ONE Campaign, Leveling the Field: Improving Opportunities for Women Farmers in Africa, shows just how large these gender gaps are. In Ethiopia, for example, women produce 23% less per hectare than men. While this finding might not be a “big” counter-intuitive idea (or a particularly new one), it’s a costly reality that has big implications for women and their children, households, and national economies.
The policy prescription for Africa’s gender gap has seemed straightforward: help women access the same amounts of productive resources (including farm inputs) as men and they will achieve similar farm yields. Numerous flagship reports and academic papers have made this very argument.
But it turns out that closing the gender gap in agriculture isn’t so straightforward. The new World Bank/ONE Campaign report demonstrates that – contrary to the conventional wisdom – equalizing women’s access to productive resources is not enough to close this gap. The report, which draws on background papers from the World Bank’s Living Standards Measurement Study - Integrated Surveys on Agriculture (LSMS-ISA) initiative and the Gender Innovation Lab, applies a statistical method known as decomposition analysis and finds that, while gender gaps in quantities of resources still matter, gaps in returns to those resources are often more important.
Take the example of farm labor, which emerges from the report as a chief driver of the gap. Women in Niger use less adult male farm labor on their plots – a factor behind the country’s 19% productivity gap. But even when Niger’s female farmers deploy the same amount of labor on their plots as males, men still enjoy an advantage. They garner higher returns (in terms of output per hectare) from the male labor that they use on their fields. This difference could be driven by a host of context-specific factors, including: child care duties that impinge on women’s ability to mobilize and supervise farm labor, norms that lead male laborers to exert more effort on male-managed plots, women’s inability to command labor at key planting and harvesting periods, and/or cash constraints that oblige women to hire less effective farm labor.
If these gaps in returns also matter, then how do we level the field? After identifying the priority drivers of the gap, the report then sifts through rigorous evidence from impact evaluations and other credible research to identify a 10-point policy action plan. While there remains a substantial knowledge gap on what works for some areas, the sector’s evidence base is growing.
And lessons from other sectors can offer some big ideas on how to tackle the gender gap in agriculture. The provision of rural child care services offers one promising example. Sebastian Martinez and co-authors conducted a randomized evaluation of a pre-school program in rural Mozambique and found that, in addition to positive effects on schooling and child development outcomes for beneficiary children, the program led to a big positive externality: primary caregivers increased their labor force participation by 26% relative to a control group. Such an approach should also be piloted and tested to see whether it helps free up women’s time for more productive agricultural work – and helps make Africa’s big gender gap a much smaller one.  

This is the first entry in a new blog series highlighting #AfricaBigIdeas. It will feature the results of the most innovative Africa-related research being done across the World Bank. What’s your BIG idea for Africa? Tell us using the following hashtag #AfricaBigIdeas


Michael O’Sullivan

Economist and land thematic leader, World Bank's Gender Innovation Lab

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