Understanding rural women’s situations to generate gender-equitable benefits

Results from a project led by the International Potato Center (CIP) to commercialize sweetpotato in Mozambique highlights why research-for-development agencies need to do their homework before setting out, as achieving goals may be more challenging than it first appears.

Crops are not gender neutral

‘Some rural women will benefit from sweetpotato value chains.

The inclusion of women in commercial agricultural value chains as a pathway to economic growth and empowerment is not new. Yet despite a growing body of research in different contexts and with different crops, there is still much to learn about whether, how, and under what conditions it delivers on its promise. The recently published paper Commercialization of the Sweetpotato Value Chain: Impacts on Women Producers in Mozambique seeks to fill some of those knowledge gaps.

In Mozambique, as in many other low- to middle-income countries, crop production is rarely gender-neutral. Men produce cash crops like wheat and cassava on better land and with access to better equipment and resources than women, for example, irrigation, quality seed varieties, finance, and training. Women, whose first responsibility is usually to cultivate crops for household consumption rather than markets, select accordingly Many have planted orange-fleshed sweet potato (OFSP) which is an excellent source of vitamin A and is increasingly used as a substitute for half the flour in bread. Yet efforts to commercialize the crop after the introduction of pro-vitamin-A varieties have brought mixed results for women producers, as lead author Sarah Mayanja explains.

“In economic terms, we can say that some of the women producers have gained economically through greater access to markets even if it’s not statistically significant. For example, some have managed to buy more poultry or have more say in purchasing decisions, such as buying school equipment or paying medical fees, but it’s a mixed picture. As is often the case when a crop starts to generate income, men start to dominate parts of its production and sale, so some of the increased income has come from the men. You also have to consider complicated and cultural aspects, like who has access to the land, and start-up finance.”

Roots and vines – a tale of two plant parts

Digging deeper into the gender aspects of OFSP cultivation in the project unearths a case in point. While women dominate in the production of the roots, or sweetpotatoes, men are more interested in the more lucrative business of cultivating vines to sell as planting material. As this requires investment and resources including quality starter materials, irrigated land, draft animals, labor, and training, many women are not able to engage.

“When it comes to vine production, women’s lack of access and control over key resources limits them,” Mayanja continues. “The women instead are focusing on root production, not just as a means of earning extra income, which includes money that can be reinvested in their enterprises, but as something they can control. Women feel it is their thing. It has also led to other outcomes, including the children performing better at school as they now eat a nutritious breakfast and have pens and books. The women don’t need to ask their husbands for permission to spend the money.”

A shift in perspective

Autonomy to make decisions around spending is a critical part of empowerment. Looking beyond the purely economic gains, the women producers report they are gaining more confidence and independence, with some taking on leadership roles in their communities, for example, leading women’s OFSP producer groups. They feel more able to assert themselves and have an improved sense of well-being. Some have benefited economically which has brought greater empowerment, for example, leaving the home for several hours a day to sell their produce, breaking through a cultural barrier that traditionally limits them from traveling alone. Some women have been able to contribute to home improvement with money from their OFSP sales whereas some ventured into businesses such as aquaculture.

Rural women who benefit from sweetpotato value chains primarily sell the storage roots

Breaking down some of the cultural gender barriers for women producers in the project can be attributed in large part to work done by the Manica Province Economic Development Agency, a local partner that worked closely with both men and women in the project’s target communities.

“Empowerment is more than economics. It is about agency. The project delivered the nutritious varieties they needed but being able to decide how to spend the money is critical to access resources, services, whatever the women need,” explains CIP project leader Eliah Munda. “The women mainly spend the money they earn on the house and the family, they don’t buy things that threaten the men but the men need to come to terms with their wives not always being at home, and having some independence. Not all of them are comfortable with it, particularly in one case where the woman became so successful that her husband put a stop to her seed multiplication business. There is still some way to go but every step forward counts”.

Not all women are equal

While the paper outlines some of the different constraints and opportunities that men and women experience in terms of crop commercialization, it is also important when planning empowerment interventions to consider that different women face different constraints and opportunities too.

“Farmers are not homogenous and neither are women farmers, something that is often ignored in the pursuit of participant numbers” warns Mayanja. “A married woman may be able to access more resources, for example, her husband’s sprayer. A woman-headed household may not have access to the same number of resources but may have more say about how they are used. It is really important to identify and include all categories of women in your project plan from the start if you want to understand the impacts of your interventions.”

Read the paper:
Commercialization of the sweetpotato value chain: Impacts on women producers in Mozambique – Sarah Mayanja, Netsayi Mudege, Katherine A Snyder, Norman Kwikiriza, Eliah Munda, Janet Achora, Fredrick Grant, 2022 (sagepub.com)

This blog is published to mark the International Day of Rural Women across CGIAR. Visit the GENDER platform to find highlights from across CGIAR that bear testament to rural women’s leadership and highlight the support needed to stave off hunger and advance gender equality: International Day of Rural Women 2022 | CGIAR Gender Platform

School of Geography, University of Arizona
Animal Industry and Fisheries, Ministry of Agriculture, Kampala.