What Does Building Back Better Look Like for African Women Engaged in Smallholder Agriculture and Food Businesses?

The participation of women is needed in the design, implementation and monitoring of policies and programs for building back better in smallholder agriculture and agribusiness

Credit: Kristin Palitza/IPS

By Jemimah Njuki
NAIROBI, Oct 9 2020 – “We need to build back better.”  This has been the rallying call on the COVID-19 response by UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres to leaders and communities around the world. It has been echoed in conference rooms and in the numerous Zoom meetings organized to discuss the pandemic. It will be especially important to apply the idea to women working in the agriculture and food sector. 

Women farmers often have lower access to productive resources than men—so in times of crisis, like COVID-19, their farm productivity and food security will likely be hit harder. The pandemic is affecting input availability and use. In a survey by Precision Agriculture for Development in Kenya, 8 in 10 agri-dealers reported a decrease in farmer footfall, and 76% reported lower sales compared to a month earlier.  

Women play a critical role in entrepreneurship in the food sector, from small scale processing to high growth companies that employ thousands of workers. In Sub-Saharan Africa, female entrepreneurs are more prevalent than male entrepreneurs, although their businesses are typically smaller and with less capital and many are in the informal sector.

The current recovery efforts, and support to the agriculture sector have remained gender blind, and when they have focused on women, they have tended to make assumptions about women’s roles in the food system

The Future of Business survey found that female led businesses were 7 percentage points more likely to be closed compared to male-led small businesses. They are also likely to take longer to recover from the impacts of the pandemic due to their lower access to formal credit and reliance on the family network for investment finance. 

A report by UN Women and the UNDP found that a total of 247 million women and girls will be living on less than $1.90 a day in 2021. And of this number, 132 million are in sub-Saharan Africa. 

And while there has been extensive discussion of gendered impacts of Covid-19, particularly the care burdens on women, and on building back better after the pandemic, what that looks like for many women engaged in stallholder agriculture is not clear to many. 

The current recovery efforts, and support to the agriculture sector have remained gender blind, and when they have focused on women, they have tended to make assumptions about women’s roles in the food system.  For example, women farmers have been targeted with interventions focused on home gardens and homestead food production and while this is important, it is not enough.

Evidence shows that women play a pivotal role in all three key components of food security: food availability (production), food access (distribution), and food utilization as well as in activities that support agricultural development. 

Leaving them out in the short and long-term recovery process is not an option and any efforts to build back better must focus on and include women.

So, how do we “build back better” for women in the food sectors? Initiatives must include two broad strategies to succeed; increased access to social protection, appropriate seeds, markets and finance; and enhanced and amplified leadership of women. This is how it can be achieved. 

First, governments can increase access to markets for women smallholder farmers by providing short term access to markets through procuring Covid19 food relief and school meal supplies. A study in India showed that public procurement institutions helped the state government implement a timely and sound procurement process during the lockdown, preventing widespread losses in crop income.

In the longer term, developing improved local markets with infrastructure that supports women such as child care facilities, encouraging shorter value chains and crop diversification has been shown to enable women access markets. 

Second, allocation of inputs must target women who are the majority smallholder farmers in the continent. Most governments are allocating funds for inputs, through digital voucher systems. For example, Kenya is spending a 500 million USD loan from the World Bank on inputs through a voucher system that has no specific targets for women despite another program with IFAD showing that targeting women has led to increases in their production. These voucher systems are however likely to leave women out due to their lower access to mobile phones.  

Third, target cash transfers directly to women as a social safety net. Cash transfers targeted at women have potential to help them rebuild their businesses, secure their food security and that of their households. In Nigeria, women who received cash transfers increased investment in their own business activities, were more likely to be involved in their own non-farm businesses and increased their profits.

Fourth, support women entrepreneurs, traders and processors engaged in the food business. Women have however always faced barriers to financial inclusion. Reforming the financial system so that it works for women must be a critical part of building back better.

For example in Zambia, the implementation of a self-check tool for commercial banks to ensure their financial products and services address women’s needs in the same way as those of men led to some banks adjusting their products to better meet the needs of women.

And finally, women who are in smallholder agriculture and agribusiness must be part of building back better. In the political space, countries with female leadership have been very successful in dealing with the pandemic. This leadership has however not cascaded to other sectors. The participation and influence of women is needed in the design, implementation and monitoring of policies and programs for building back better in the sector.  Building back better must be defined by those most affected by the pandemic. 


Dr Jemimah Njuki is an Aspen News Voices Fellow and a UN food systems champion. She writes on gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls.

Why We’re Uniting in Support of African Girl Leaders to beat AIDS & Shift Power

Credit: UN Women/Ryan Brown

By Winnie Byanyima, Audrey Azoulay, Natalia Kanem, Henrietta Fore and Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka
GENEVA/ PARIS/ NEW YORK, Oct 9 2020 – The International Day of the Girl Child on 11th October is a call for us to reflect on our responsibilities. Twenty-five years ago, governments adopted the historic Beijing Declaration and the Platform for Action.

Seventeen years ago, African governments committed to the Maputo Protocol affirming the rights of women and girls. Adolescent girls are leading change around the world. They are a tremendous engine of progress. They drive economies. They transform communities. Yet many girls born after these agreements were made are still denied their most basic human rights.

In sub-Saharan Africa, the epicentre of the AIDS epidemic, HIV continues to disproportionately impact adolescent girls. Today, five in six newly infected adolescents aged between 15 and 19 in this region are girls.

Over 600 adolescent girls in sub-Saharan Africa are newly infected every day. AIDS is still the second leading cause of death among young women aged 15-24 in the region. Yet the majority of adolescent girls do not have comprehensive knowledge about prevention of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.

Now, the COVID-19 crisis threatens to worsen these vulnerabilities. Evidence from past crises – such as the Ebola outbreak in conflict-affected areas of DRC – show that school closures worsen gender inequality since girls are less likely to return to school than boys.

Girls are forced to enter the informal job market or shoulder unpaid care work at home, leading to increased experiences of violence and spikes in adolescent pregnancies and harmful practices like child marriage and female genital mutilation.

As women executive leaders for UNAIDS, UNESCO, UNFPA, UNICEF and UN Women, we are joining forces to confront the injustices faced by adolescent girls in sub-Saharan Africa.

Together we are working to advance a package dubbed “Education Plus”: completion of quality secondary education; universal access to comprehensive sexuality education; access to sexual and reproductive health services and education; freedom from sexual and gender-based violence; and school-to-work transitions, economic security and empowerment.

We are championing removal of discriminatory laws and promoting the voice and engagement of young women and adolescent girls as advocates and leaders.

Africa’s adolescent girls and young women themselves have risen to speak out, together, to demand these rights. Here are just some of the things they have been telling us:

“A safe learning environment for girls must be prioritized as a lot of them fall prey to those who are meant to protect them. Girls must be able to learn in an environment that is safe and healthy,” says Brenda of Cameroon

“COVID-19 has exposed our vulnerabilities and the glaring leadership and developmental gaps that exist in my country. It has revealed the need for young people with a heart for service,” says Wanjuhi of Kenya

“Resources to disseminate information must be put in place and the media must also be involved to combat associated taboos,” says Bibiche of DRC

Learning from adolescent girls and young women has reminded us as leaders that legal, cultural, social and economic obstacles are intertwined and need to be taken on together; that at the heart of transforming girls lives is shifting unequal power dynamics; and that they do not seek to be “rescued” but seek to be supported in their own right to participate.

A South African study has shown that HIV prevalence among girls who had finished high school was about half that among girls who had not (8.6% versus 16.9%). Research shows too that including discussions about gender and power dynamics in comprehensive sexuality education makes it five times more effective in preventing sexually transmitted infections.

It is vital too that young women are supported to develop the necessary skills as they transition into adulthood to secure decently paid employment. With our united collaboration and support, this generation can truly be Generation Equality and Generation Unlimited.

It is Africa’s adolescent girls’ and young women’s own activism and organising that will drive progress. Our role as leaders is to unite behind their energy, bringing together governments, communities, civil society, business, and others.

Together we can ensure vital investments and transformational policy shifts are made so that all of Africa’s girls can enjoy all of their rights to education and empowerment. We do this not “for” Africa’s adolescent girls and young women but with them; this generation of feminist leaders is the fighting chance to beat AIDS, achieve gender equality, and secure the human rights of all girls.


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Scaling Up SDG4 in Crises

Yasmine Sherif, Director of Education Cannot Wait

By Yasmine Sherif
NEW YORK, Oct 9 2020 - Out of global crises spring opportunities for change. [...] Read more »