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Q&A: Women Farmers Are Key to a Food-Secure Africa

Busani Bafana interviews JANE KARUKU, the first woman president of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa

BULAWAYO, May 10 2012 (IPS) - While women constitute the majority of food producers, processors and marketers in Africa, their role in the agricultural sector still remains a minor one because of cultural and social barriers.

Jane Karuku, the new AGRA boss, dreams of seeing smallholder farmers become the drivers in Africa's quest for food security. Credit: Courtesy: AGRA

Jane Karuku, the new AGRA boss, dreams of seeing smallholder farmers become the drivers in Africa's quest for food security. Credit: Courtesy: AGRA

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), women are the majority of the world’s agricultural producers, supplying more than 50 percent of the food that is grown globally. And in sub-Saharan Africa the number is higher, as women grow 80 to 90 percent of the food in the region.

FAO says that although across the globe women are responsible for providing the food for their families, they do this in the face of constraints and attitudes that conspire to undervalue their work and responsibilities and hinder their participation in decision and policy making.

But it is a situation that the new Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) boss, Jane Karuku, says must change in order for Africa to feed itself.

Karuku, a Kenyan business leader with a career spanning over 20 years, became the first female president of the organisation in April.

AGRA is a partnership that works on the African continent to improve food security and enhance the economic empowerment of millions of smallholder farmers and their families. It does this through nearly 100 programmes in 14 countries.

Karuku joins AGRA from Telkom Kenya, a subsidiary of France Telecom-Orange, where she was the deputy chief executive.

She told IPS about her dream of seeing smallholder farmers become the drivers in Africa’s quest for food security. Excerpts of the interview follow.

Q: Do you see your appointment as a milestone for women farmers in Africa?

A: As AGRA’s first female president, it is a great honour to advocate on behalf of the tireless women who are sowing seeds and working in fields across Africa. They are the real heroines in this story, and I hope to highlight their important contributions for a food-secure future.

Q: Do food security policies recognise the role of women farmers in the production, processing and marketing of food in agriculture?

A: Across Africa there are great signs of progress when it comes to smallholder farmers, the majority of whom are women who are building prosperous lives for themselves and their families.

Success for smallholders, however, has been lopsided. Women smallholders and rural entrepreneurs on the continent are neither participating fully nor deriving benefits in equal measure in the agri-economy owning to gender obstacles driven by cultural and societal norms. This must change if Africa is to transform the capacity to feed itself and realise the quality of life envisioned for rural households and communities in sub-Saharan Africa.

Q: In your appointment speech you said: “Smallholder farming is a way of life in Africa, full of challenges and equally full of huge opportunities.” What will you do to strike a balance for food security?

A: My focus is to work to remove the obstacles that prevent smallholder farmers across Africa from significantly boosting productivity and income, while safeguarding the environment and promoting equity. I am committed to ensuring farmers have a full range of choices when it comes to approaching their work.

Q: Smallholder farmers hold the key to food security in Africa. What is your vision for improving their situation?

A: My vision is a food-secure and prosperous Africa achieved through rapid and sustainable agricultural growth that is based on smallholder farmers who produce staple food crops. AGRA’s mission is to trigger a uniquely “African Green Revolution” that transforms agriculture into a highly productive, efficient, competitive and sustainable system to ensure food security and lift millions out of poverty.

Q: Where do you see the role of AGRA in advocating assistance for smallholder farmers to cope with the impact that climate change has on food security?

A: AGRA and its partners work together to determine the kinds of environmental safeguards farmers need to increase their yields and improve their livelihoods. By focusing on sustainable development practices, AGRA reduces environmental degradation and conserves biodiversity.

Rebuilding soil health and enabling Africa’s smallholder farmers to grow more on less land should reduce the pressure to clear and cultivate forests and savannahs, thus helping conserve the environment and biodiversity.

AGRA’s sustainable agricultural practices include improving soil health through integrated soil fertility management. We do this through using a combination of fertilisers and organic inputs, and techniques that are appropriate for local conditions and resources. Through advocating the use of agro- ecologically sound approaches to soil and crop management, such as fertiliser micro-dosing in arid areas, AGRA will guard against potential overuse of fertilisers that could harm the environment.

Q: Research is key to food security; what is your take on the current investment in agricultural research in Africa?

A: Research is critical to making the most of the full agricultural value chain – from seed to harvest. While food productivity has increased globally by 140 percent in recent decades, the figures for sub- Saharan Africa over the same period of time show a reduction. This is because farming across much of the continent has changed little in generations. The role of research is critically important.

Q: What major impact has AGRA had in Africa, and how do you plan to build on it?

A: AGRA takes a uniquely integrated approach to helping smallholder farmers overcome hunger and poverty. By focusing on seeds, soil, market access, policy and partnership and innovative financing, the programme is transforming subsistence farming into sustainable, viable commercial activities that will increase yields across the continent. I hope to continue to look for intersections and innovative opportunities to improve farmers’ lives.

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