Woman with child working in a field
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

By Mapenzie Tauzie (University of Leeds), Patience Mgoli Mwale and Caitlin Shannon (CARE International UK)
June 6, 2023

The food systems transformation agenda of the UN Food Systems Summit has identified equality for women in agriculture as a central tenet of a just transformation. 43% of world’s agricultural labour force and 90% of household food preparation is undertaken by women. It is acknowledged that the systemic obstacles that women face are deeply embedded within their socio-economic context. Women own just 5% of the world’s farmland and access only 5% of formal agriculture training. Malawi’s long and medium-term development vision; Vision 2063 and Malawi Growth and Development Strategy (MGDS) III respectively, are anchored in agriculture and a commitment to women’s inclusion through investment in gender equality and women’s empowerment.

Women’s ability to mitigate against food insecurity and external shocks such as climate change is hampered by their limited participation in decision making, access to information and training, and social norms. Limited ownership and control over productive assets such as land and labour due to cultural barriers have implications on agrarian livelihood strategies and agricultural innovations that women can employ. Given the relevance and the position that women’s empowerment has in both national and international development policy in building resilient livelihoods, further research is required to interrogate the relationship between women’s empowerment and food systems transformations in Malawi.

The FoSTA-Health project will  employ a critical gender lens in exploring how women navigate intra-household dynamics to influence farm level adoption decisions and post-farm activities such as marketing, to improve their livelihoods. One of the evidence-synthesis studies will focus on the CARE-led Titukulane program in southern Malawi. The research will include program beneficiaries as well as non-beneficiaries, to get a representative overview of the current food systems and their changes. This program promotes and supports Farmer Field Business Schools (FFBS) which have promoted, for example, diversification away from maize-dominated agriculture towards pigeon peas, a cash crop whose production is mainly dominated by smallholder women in Malawi. The evidence synthesis will analyse women’s capabilities, agency and resources, and their livelihood outcomes in the transition towards commercial production of pigeon peas and increased market engagement.

Our initial review shows that 98% of the households cultivate maize and consider it to be the most important crop. However, pigeon pea production can have multiple benefits. The leaves and the stem can be used as fodder, and the dried stems used as fuel. In addition, pigeon pea is drought-tolerant and also high in protein content, making them a cheaper dietary alternative to dairy and meat. Furthermore, the findings also show that a higher proportion of pigeon pea output (40%) is sold than maize (13%), and the commodity has important potential for income generation. Despite this income potential, findings show that there is low adoption of legume-intensified maize-based systems or pigeon pea crop rotations due to small farm size and limited access to and affordability of seeds.

There is emerging evidence that increasing women’s access to resources and decision making power will translate into increased crop diversification, and that a FFBS approach can be mutually reinforcing in terms of improving women’s agency and capabilities for market engagement. However, there are significant challenges.

Male headed households are approximately twice as likely to purchase seed than female headed households in Southern Malawi due to resource constraints. Furthermore, vulnerable households with low land holding size allocate more land (typically well over 70%) to maize as their cash crop staple (Snapp, 2002). The cultural importance of maize also diminishes the potential of adding legumes to crop rotations throughout Malawi as most farmers equate food security at household level to the size of maize harvest. Therefore, growing more legumes is dependent on whether maize produced at household level is perceived to be sufficient.   Cultural norms influence gendered patterns of resource allocation within the household, the gender differences in the decisions on adoption and choice of crops, and the division of roles and responsibilities within the household and on the farm.

The evidence synthesis reveals knowledge gaps in understanding the relationship between women’s empowerment, the decisions taken at household level and how this translates in to crop diversification and market engagement. There is also limited evidence about the role of FFBS, as well as factors such as social norms and asset ownership, in mediating these relationships. At a more fundamental level, we also argue that it is important to critically consider the appropriateness of common conceptualizations such as the materialistic view of empowerment and innovation adoption rates metrics as measure of women’s empowerment in different contexts.

Filling in these empirical, methodological and conceptual gaps in understanding women’s empowerment in southern Malawi is particularly important in the present national and international policy landscape and efforts towards this will be taken forward in FoSTA-Health research.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

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