How African Agriculture expresses differences between Men and Women

Millions of dollars have gone into promoting gender equality in many developing countries. More millions continue to be poured into gender programmes. However, it has remained easy to conduct workshops and write documents on gender than to address messy gender issues. Several gender discussions and policies are pitched at a high level of abstraction such that it is difficult for ordinary people, especially the majority of women to see how the notion of gender speaks to their conditions. A key part of the problem has been a tendency to propagate the myth of sameness between men and women.

How African communities account for differences between men and women

Although many African communities are assumed to be gender-imbalanced, Agrarian African communities have practiced gender balance before the word ‘gender’ was invented. They have traditionally been conscious of the differences between masculine and feminine energies. This is seen in their recognition of the fact that men and women have different ways of dealing with socio-economic issues. While masculine approaches focus on specific outcomes informed by efficiency considerations, feminine approaches tend to be more inclusive and holistic. The current emphasis on gender equality does not adequately reveal and build on differences between male and female approaches. A great deal can be learnt from how African agriculture handles masculine and feminine differences.


Agriculture as an expression of masculine and feminine differences

The roles of men and women have had long routes in African tradition. These roles have traditionally been defined along societal, cultural and economic perspectives. A key role for women remains taking care of household requirements such as the wants and needs of children toward sustaining the next generation.  On the other hand men have naturally been the bread winners who focus on wealth creation for the household. Most masculine and feminine socio-economic roles and norms in African communities are founded on these principles, built over centuries. In relation to food and nutrition security, men are more on the production side while women focus on health and nutrition. These roles are currently reproduced along agricultural value chains. Men focus on production and productivity.  In the market, they are responsible for planning and deciding on the supply of bulky commodities like maize, potatoes, sugar beans, cabbages, sweet potatoes and others which have become recognized for fulfilling food security functions. They also participate in the whole marketing value chain, pushing commodities that require a lot of manpower of which the majority of women are not able to do.

Feminine decision making tends to be very important at household nutritional level. Women decide how much of, for instance, 20 bags of maize should go to the market, when and how much should remain for the family’s nutritional requirements. For men, what comes to the market is for wealth creation, for instance investment in livestock, farming implements and sending children to school.  Even if women do such roles, they will be doing what should ideally be done by men. On the other hand, starting from the household, women focus on the nutrition component. They are interested in what other crops can be produced to supplement household nutrition. That is how we end up with groundnuts, beans and different kinds of vegetables whose nutritional value is understood by women at an intuitional level. Where this balance is not taken into account, we end up with a male-dominated food system made up of maize, potatoes and other famous commodities whose nutritional content is completely not balanced.

Unfortunate lack of appropriate agricultural models and the bad side of mechanization

Industrial agriculture has destroyed most traditional agricultural practices that recognize differences between men and women. By now there should be agricultural models that support male and female decision-making processes on an equal basis. Ideally food and nutrition should be separated if useful models are to be built. That will ensure nutrition initiatives ride on the knowledge of women while food security issues ride on male knowledge and sensibility. There is no meaningful technology that can smoothen the processing of nutritional foods that are better understood by women starting from household level. In all African countries, monoculture has diverted the attention of policy makers and industrialists from supporting the value addition of local nutritional foods.


Besides lack of appropriate processing equipment for women, modern mechanization has shifted power from women to men.  For example, while women have traditionally controlled household processing tools such as grinding stones and pestles that were used to produce peanut butter and mealie-meal, as soon as mechanization came in, the ownership of grinding mills, oil expressing machines and others shifted to men. As a result, women’s tacit knowledge has been lost since engineers have not been able to capture women’s tacit knowledge and sensibilities into elegant engineering process manuals. A modern piece of equipment cannot fully capture the roasting process as well as twist and turns that have traditionally been an integral part of women’s knowledge in producing the finest peanut butter and small grains flour.

Feminine knowledge has to receive the respect it deserves

By gathering and articulating differences between masculine and feminine knowledge systems, gender activists can build a strong case for supporting the role of women in socio-economic development. Many big companies have taken a cue from women knowledge to create machines that are now producing African beverages such as Mahewu and opaque beer. All this knowledge was secretly ‘stolen’ from feminine practices and embedded into processing machinery. Unfortunately, women have been left behind as industries that produce these beverages are male-owned although such industries have been inspired by feminine knowledge and practices.  Beer brewing has traditionally been a female domain with men being customers but when it got industrialized it became a male domain.

Feminine perspectives define market requirements and collective consumption patterns in all African countries. They influence decisions around more than 70% of agricultural commodities that are consumed at household level. Feminine knowledge and sensibilities also influence what goes to agricultural markets in terms of quality, size and tastes of vegetables, tubers or fruits.  Rarely do you find men buying tomatoes and onions intelligently. Men may simply buy for price when women could consider many other parameters, including nutrition. Any increase or fall in demand for particular commodities in the market can be traced to feminine decision-making.  That role is key in sustaining markets and influencing consumption patterns.

Women have more knowledge on how commodities are used by the majority of end-users who happen to be women.  They provide advice to end-user in terms of food preparation, storage and additional foods or ingredients that go together with particular commodities. Some of these soft skills have been passed on from generation to generation but need serious documentation in order to make sense of their evolution.  Such skills constitute critical strengths that can contribute to more than 40% of an agribusiness’s viability.

Tapping into the way women understand customer needs will reduce losses along the value chain. The majority of losses are usually caused by a mismatch between standards and expectations of the market, which can be addressed by feminine intuitions better. Unfortunately industrialization has not fully recognized feminine knowledge which cannot be out-sourced. To what extent are modern food processing plants informed by feminine sensibilities? At SME level, we need to see women dominating peanut butter processing and aggregating commodities as well as owning businesses that contribute to improved nutritional status. The business of making soups such as Royco is yet to recognize women’s age-old knowledge on nutritional recipes.

Labour-saving technologies at production level should support women’s crops.  At the moment, we have ploughs and grinding mills for maize which is a male commodity.  High value crops that are a domain of women are often highly perishable but there is no machinery for addressing this perishability besides refrigerators which do not take into account women’s natural food preservation skills.  Peas and other vegetables are some of the highly perishable women’s crops which are challenging to process.

From food fairs to mass products

Instead of conducting a series of food fairs every year, promoters should support the evolution of feminine nutritional knowledge from food fairs to small factories where real products are produced for the majority of consumers. Cooking competitions are a waste of time and energy if they don’t translate into nutritional focused income streams. Unfortunately, a biased financial system which asks for collateral assets that women cannot afford and therefore prevent women from turning their ideas into sustainable nutrition businesses.  An ordinary woman cannot get a $1000 loan to establish a nutrition project as an individual because she doesn’t have collateral or a pay slip. As a result men end up doing that business because they have collateral and pay slips. That is why although women own chickens at household level, they cannot develop their small enterprises into big businesses. Major industrial poultry businesses are owned by men while women become ordinary consumers although they are the main sources of practical knowledge on chickens.

Harnessing the vitality of diversity

Development agencies and policy makers can learn from carefully studying how African agrarian communities balance masculine and feminine roles. That will ensure the current notion of gender does not destroy the vitality of diversity by propagating the false belief that men and women are the same. In many African communities, that false belief has weakened the social fabric. These communities have always been aware that women and men are different from each other right down to the way their brains and bodies function, never mind the obvious anatomical differences.  As a result, people have always been aware that the vibrancy of diversity is found in difference, not sameness

From time immemorial, African communities have learnt to honor diversity and celebrate strengths in everyone, regardless of gender. Respect for diversity is best expressed in honoring and leveraging difference, not in propagating the myth of sameness. Many organizations and African communities have been subjected to forced diversity by development partners, mostly based on imported models of equality.  Yet creating save spaces for sharing and developing different ways of learning and facilitating knowledge exchange is very important. Many of the tools used in facilitation such as field days, focus group discussion and open space are more akin to the feminine approach where, through apparent chaos, you reach fantastic lessons. More conventional lecturing approaches or planning techniques are more masculine with a sharp route to deliver.  To the extent that machines focus on efficiency, output and other easily measurable parameters, they speak to masculine thought patterns. Gender activists can add more value if they advocate for technologies that resonate with feminine knowledge expressions such as reading non-verbal cues and emotional intelligence.  / /

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Author: Michael

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