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Leveling the field for women farmers in Uganda

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In Uganda, farming employs a massive 66 percent of the working population and accounts for a quarter of GDP. Population growth is among the highest in the world, with the number of Ugandans likely to at least double by 2050. It would be difficult to overstate  the urgency of creating enough jobs and producing enough food for everyone in this landlocked East African country.

Most of Uganda’s 36 million people live in rural areas, where poverty is concentrated and most households depend on men’s and women’s agricultural production for sustenance. Despite impressive inroads against poverty over the last decade, some 22 percent of the population still lived below the national poverty line in 2012-13 compared with 31 percent seven years earlier.

Farm productivity increases have meanwhile stalled at around 2.2 percent—well below the population growth rate of 3.2 percent and Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP) target of 6 percent.
Could boosting the productivity of women farmers turn those numbers around? And what measures might be the most promising ways to help?

A vital role

Women play a vital role in Uganda’s rural agricultural sector and contribute a higher than average share of crop labor in the region. They also make up more than half of Uganda’s agricultural workforce, and a higher proportion of women than men work in farming—76 percent versus 62 percent. Yet compared to men, their productivity is low.

Comparing household farm productivity is problematic, as prior research has concluded. Most female-managed plots in Sub-Saharan Africa are located within male-headed households, which differ significantly from female-headed households where, in most cases, husbands have died, left to work as migrant laborers, or taken on another wife.

Fortunately, the Ugandan Bureau of Statistics (UBOS), with support from the World Bank Group’s Living Standards Measurement Study (LSMS) team, took the initiative to collect gender-disaggregated plot-level production data as part of the Uganda National Panel Survey (UNPS), allowing comparisons between male- and female-managed plots within the same households.

UBOS interviewed close to 3,000 households twice yearly and administered a comprehensive questionnaire that collected data on household demographics, education, health, labor, income sources, access to financial services, assets, spending, and consumption, among other topics—all broken down by gender.

Our team used these data to study the productivity of female-managed plots relative to male-managed plots within the same household.

We estimate the simple gender gap after accounting for plot size at 30 percent.

As expected, we found subsistence farming by far the most important source of livelihood among sampled households, ranging from 52 percent in the Central region to 76 percent in the Northern region.
Ultimately we were able to attribute two-fifths of the productivity gap to women’s greater child care responsibilities and one-fifth to their difficulty accessing markets from more remote areas.

We also found male-managed plots were 60 percent larger and 11 percentage points (25 percent versus 14 percent) more likely to be planted with cash crops such as bananas and coffee.

Use of improved seeds, fertilizer, and crop protection chemicals—herbicides, pesticides, and fungicides—is strikingly low in Uganda among men and women alike. Yet female managers were nonetheless even less likely than males to use them: When they did, they used far less.

These factors explain some of the productivity gap, particularly women’s lower uptake of cash crops such as bananas and coffee and their lesser access to and use of improved seeds and pesticides.

Ultimately, however, we were able to attribute two-fifths of the productivity gap to women’s greater child care responsibilities and one-fifth to their difficulty accessing markets from more remote areas.

Our work doesn't identify an explicit causal relationship, but it  does provide an exploratory basis for future research and policy design.

Low-cost approaches to ease child-care constraints on female managers could substantially equalize resource distribution within households, for example. Community-based child-care interventions are one possibility, although we need more evidence on their efficacy.

Given women’s higher travel costs, interventions that bring extension services closer to household dwellings, provide access to market information through mobile phones, or allow better access to transport may also help.

Existing women’s groups might be leveraged for commercial purposes, such as collective access to fertilizer and markets. Improving women’s access to and application of pesticides and organic fertilizer—through vouchers, loans, or cash transfers—would also contribute to closing the gender gap.

A multi-country challenge

Women make up 50 percent of the agricultural labor force in Sub-Saharan Africa, but manage plots  that are roughly 20-30 percent less productive.

A report by the World Bank Group and the ONE Campaign, Levelling the Field: Improving Opportunities for Women Farmers in Africa, studied differences between how much men and women farmers produce in six African countries—Ethiopia, Malawi, Niger, Nigeria, Tanzania, and Uganda. After accounting for plot size and region, it found male-managed plots produce 15-66 percent more per hectare than female-managed plots. These six countries  account for more than 40 percent of Sub-Saharan Africa’s population.

Those are big numbers. Closing these gaps would not only improve the income of female farmers but benefit families, communities, and economies, boosting the kind of inclusive growth that makes whole countries more resilient.

One UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) study estimates that if women worldwide had the same access to productive resources as men, they could increase yields on their farms by 20–30 percent and raise total agricultural output by 2.5–4 percent. Gains in agricultural production alone could lift 12-17 percent of the population—some 100 million to 150 million people—out of hunger.

Even holding total resources and responsibilities constant, our findings suggest that more equitable distribution of these, including childcare, between male and female plot managers could boost productivity substantially.

Midway through 2015, the African Union’s Year of Women’s Empowerment, it’s worth recalling that advancing gender equality—in factories and fields, in banks and businesses, in households and houses of parliament—will also benefit Africa’s next generation, males and females alike. Closing gender gaps, including those in the all-important agriculture sector, will be a major step forward in ending poverty on a continent too long blighted by it.


Derick H. Bowen

Consultant Economist, Development Economics Research Group

Daniel Ayalew Ali

Economist, Development Research Group

Klaus Deininger

Lead Economist, Development Research Group, World Bank

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