Published on Let's Talk Development

Why are women farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa less productive?

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Researchers have documented a wide array of gender disparities in sub-Saharan Africa that have important implications for individual and household well-being. Perhaps one of the most significant disparities is in agricultural production, the primary economic activity for the majority of the population in sub-Saharan Africa. Closing this gender gap in agricultural productivity would not only improve the welfare of female farmers but could also have larger benefits for other members of the household, especially children. However, in order to design effective policy interventions aimed at closing this productivity gap, we must first understand the nature and cause of the gap.

In a recent paper, we explore and attempt to explain gender disparities in agricultural production in Niger. Niger is a prime candidate for a study of this sort, being one of the poorest countries in Africa, with approximately 90 percent of all households earning some income from agricultural activities. Nigerien farmers also see some of the lowest agricultural yields in the world, partially due to a harsh climate that often results in water scarcity as well as external shocks that affect the country with some regularity. However, yields in Niger also lag behind those in neighboring countries with similar climates such as Mali and Burkina Faso.

We benefit from the use of a detailed household survey, the Enquête Nationale sur les Conditions de Vie des Ménages et l’Agriculture (ECVMA), a LSMS-ISA survey conducted by the Niger National Office of Statistics (INS) in partnership with the World Bank. The ECVMA contains detailed information on agricultural plots, including who in the household manages each plot as well as the total size and production of each plot. This allows us to conduct a comparison at the plot level rather than aggregating at the household level.

When we compare male- and female-managed plots, we find several wide gaps. First, male-managed plots produce twice as much on average in total compared to female-managed plots. This is partially due to the fact that male-managed plots are about 70% larger than female-managed plots. However, this difference also stems from a wide gap in agricultural productivity: on average, male-managed plots saw yields that were 40% higher than female-managed plots. Clearly, female farmers in Niger are lagging behind their male counterparts, but what is the cause?

In order to attempt to explain the cause of the productivity difference, we perform an Oaxaca-Blinder decomposition. This allows us to not only assess whether the difference is explained by an imbalance in endowments or a difference in the returns to those endowments (otherwise known as structural advantage), but also what specific factors are to blame. For example, we can assess how much of the productivity gap is a result of a difference in the amount of fertilizer used on a plot (the endowment effect) and how much is attributable to a difference in the returns to use of that fertilizer for productivity (the structural effect). What we find is the productivity difference is not primary a result of differences in endowments between male and female plot managers, but is instead predominantly explained by structural differences. There are two primary factors where female farmers are at a disadvantage compared to male farmers: agricultural labor and the child dependency ratio. Both male household labor and hired labor were less productive on female plots relative to male plots. One possible explanation is that inferior laborers are allocated to female plots while the superior laborers work on the male plots. In addition, hired labor may also not work as hard when managed by a female. In addition to seeing lower returns to hired labor, the productivity of female managers also suffered due to a shortage of hired labor (an endowment effect) relative to males.

The second factor that largely explains the gender productivity gap is a difference in the effect of a higher child dependency ratio on productivity. Female farmers with a high child dependency ratio see lower yields than male farmers with a similar child dependency ratio. When households have more children (and thus a higher dependency ratio), female managers likely have to split their time between caring for children and cultivating their plots. This in turn causes the productivity of their plots to suffer relative to male mangers.

These findings highlight several areas where policy should focus in order to narrow the gender gap in productivity in Niger. One key area of focus for future agricultural policy interventions is the facilitation of women’s access to and use of hired farm labor. Since agriculture in Niger is very labor-intensive and use of other inputs is limited, a reduced reliance on agricultural labor through promotion of other inputs or investment in agricultural capital would also likely improve yields, both for women and in Niger as a whole.  In addition, policies aimed at reducing the child care burden on female managers would enable women to devote a larger portion of their time to working on their plots and supervising hired labor, likely leading to higher yields. Policies such as community-based child care would contribute to narrowing the agricultural productivity gap in Niger.


Kevin McGee

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

Prospere R. Backiny-Yetna

Senior Economist/Statistician

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