Why African women are the drivers of development

This blog post was written by Katherine Lay.

Women are a formidable economic force across emerging markets in Africa, yet their role in economic production remains largely unrecognized. Their continued inability to access and control economic and social capital assets and resources has been a central factor in perpetuating Africa’s poverty trap and keeping the economic performance of many African states below their potential.

“We need to ensure that the energy, skills, strength, values and wisdom of women become an integral part of the remodeled economic infrastructures now being developed by global leaders. Empowering and investing in women is part of a global solution for us all, now and in the future.” -Graça Machel, African Elder, Activist and Former First Lady of Mozambique and South Africa

Creating a climate of success for women in Africa is not simply smart economics, it is integral to the continent’s development effectiveness, referenced by a direct correlation between women’s empowerment, national GDP growth, private sector growth, environmental sustainability and improved health outcomes. The implications for human development are vast, but remain unharnessed. Instead, marginalization of women as economic actors is compromising a continent poised for a massive economic boom.

Women’s disempowerment is particularly glaring in Africa’s agricultural sector. Women are Africa’s principal food producers: according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, they make up 70 percent of the agricultural labor force and are responsible for 80 percent of food production and 60 to 90 percent of marketing, in addition to grueling household responsibilities.

Any genuine effort to eradicate poverty and hunger in Africa must therefore confront the fact that more than half of the producers of the agricultural sector –- a sector that can have twice the impact on poverty reduction as growth in other sectors –- are operating from a distinct disadvantage. Women are contending with policies and practices that severely restrain their agricultural production potential and are facing widespread restrictions on their ability to buy, sell or inherit land, utilize banking services, or access rudimentary resources and markets.

In Uganda, for example, women receive only 9 percent of agricultural credit, while in Malawi only 7 percent of female-headed households receive extension support, compared to 13 percent for male-headed households. In Kenya, women produce 80 percent of the country’s food and manage more than one-third of smallholder farms, yet receive less than 10 percent of credit provided for smallholders and own less than 10 percent of the land. As a result, women cannot maximize profits, reinvest them or secure capital to expand their investments.

It is clear that ongoing failure to invest in women farmers is handicapping the continent’s quest for more productive and sustainable agriculture systems and more food secure and prosperous societies. Success will lie in the removal of restrictive laws and in agriculture policies and budgets that are responsive to the needs of local women farmers, empowering them to produce more food for local markets as a solid foundation for global food security.

Investing in women’s economic empowerment is a high-yield investment, with multiplier effects on productivity, efficiency and inclusive growth for the continent. This context presents a key opportunity for governments and business leaders to recognize and encourage women to be participants, beneficiaries and enablers of Africa’s growth. Even where supportive policies are established, implementation and practice will only succeed if all leaders send clear messages that the economic participation of women is fundamental to Africa’s future success.