International Studies & Programs

Recognizing the Vital Role of Healthy Soils in African Agriculture and the Need to Empower Women in Land Management

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Published: Thursday, 12 Jan 2023 Author: Tiwonge Ngona Kampondeni

As we approach the Africa Fertilizer and Soil Health Summit in June 2023, we are reminded that healthy soils play a critical role in supporting agricultural productivity. Healthy soils are also critical for climate change mitigation and for supporting a range of ecosystem services. Heads of State and delegates to the summit will all be aware that 16 years after the Abuja 2006 Summit, Africa’s soils continue to be degraded resulting in significant loss of agricultural productivity. There is now consensus that as we begin to craft a new set policies and strategies to arrest soil degradation and promote soil health on the continent, smallholder farmers will need to be central to the implementation of post-summit actions. In many cases, the involvement of the smallholders in design and implementation of agricultural development interventions has been more of an afterthought than an integral component of the project. Smallholders are considered beneficiaries – people who receive the interventions, rather than key actors. In addition, there is consensus that gender considerations and women empowerment are key to transforming Africa’s agricultural and food systems including through promoting soil health. But the role of women in land management and soil health has not been adequately explored.

In this article we talked to Dr. Oumou Camara (OC), Vice President of Programs and Projects and Ms. Eva Sanou, Gender Equality & Women Economic Empowerment Specialist at the International Fertilizer Development Center (IFDC). The two share with us their thoughts Gender, Women, Empowerment and Soil Health in Africa

What is the role of gender in sustainable land management and soil health as a path to increasing agricultural productivity on the continent?

Land management and soil health depend the agricultural management provided by a piece of land’s occupants; in Africa this is usually families of smallholder farmers. It is also known that when it comes to gender, men and women have different societal roles, attributed crops, production purpose (subsistence or commercial), and land management tasks. Although these may vary throughout the continent, the constant that remains is that soil health involves everyone. To increase productivity we must understand each actor’s (men, women and youth) contributions and facilitate their access to information and technical and financial skills to produce higher yields in a sustained, resilient, and environmentally friendly manner. When all roles and genders are visible and recognized for their efforts in production, processes can be improved at each level so to adopt best practices for soil and land management. The gender component in this sense is therefore about bringing to light everyone’s efforts and making sure all are remunerated and empowered for and through their contributions in safeguarding healthy soils.

How have the current policies, interventions, and cultural contexts constrain women’s abilities to practice soil health enhancing practices?

When it comes to soils and land management, many cultures believe that women should not be exposed to fertilizers and other production inputs due to their toxicity and that land management is not a job for women. Most policies and interventions are, however, more business-based and focused on the economic opportunities through input dealing and land handling. Women, men, and youth are said to have the same access to these opportunities and have been led with an inclusive approach to favor their participation.

Disparities are, however, still observed. Lack of access to the right information at the right time combined with low access to adapted financial products have contributed to the disparities between women and men. When all actors are not at the same level of skillsets and information, the risk for counterproductive actions are higher in soil and land management. These have, for the most part, affected more women than men.

In addition, national regulations governing land management and allocation in most of the cases do not specify the place of women and youth. As a result, some traditions maintain that land belongs to male heads of households and that women and youth are dependents. As a result, they do not have access to land except through loans or leases and thus are not motivated to fertilize it knowing that the landowner will benefit from the long-term effects of the fertilizer. Therefore, the middle ground between cultural context, technology advancements on soil management, and national policies is still a complex equilibrium to find. We should also see these as factors to combine well instead of constraints for interventions on soil health to work for actors (both men and women) as required in main projects and programs.

How can we reaffirm the role women play in enhancing soil health?

Out of a good soil comes nutritious produce. Nutritious produce nourishes and contributes to households’ health and vitality. Strong and energetic human beings can change the world and contribute longer to their families and communities economic, social, and environmental well-being. Women are often the gate keepers to the quality of produce consumed in households and communities. They are quite involved as well with production of nutrient-dense produce (namely fruits, vegetables, and oilseeds) as well as food crops such as rice. We don’t need to reaffirm their roles, but to reinforce their visibility and bargaining power over the right to own land, to learn, act, and earn revenues with best practices for soil management. That way women can contribute to decisions over sustainable production.

How can we ensure that post-summit actions such as investments, innovations and technologies for sustainable land and soil management complement, rather than constrain women’s roles in promoting soil health?

As in all approaches, for a product or service to work and to be adopted, it must serve the purpose of making life of the buyer easier by reducing time, financial, and physical constraints, and/or enhancing gains such as social status, increased health, and empowerment. In that sense, innovations, investments, and technologies introduced for sustainable soil management should also be addressing women’s constraints for impactful adoption. These interventions should be need based.

How can we make these technologies and innovations accessible and affordable to women farmers?

A proper analysis of cost structure is needed as well as the review on how flexible and adaptable identified technologies and innovations are to women’s context. It is also important for service providers to be open to offer different schemes (e.g., payments in cash and/or in kind, through credit schemes, Village Savings and Loan Association funding, pay as you go, etc.) as well as to travel or put in place an effective line of distribution to cater to women’s production and soil management needs.

Having women- and youth -led demonstration plots to champion identified technologies and innovations will also boost women farmers’ adoption rates as confirmed by the following statement from Bineta BA a women farmer in Senegal who said:

«I didn’t believe that you can use less fertilizer and get very good yields, that is why I reduced the area initially planned for the application of the microdose, but when I saw the results after three harvests in one month, I quickly decided to plant and apply the microdose on the whole plot».

What is the key issue you would like Heads of State and delegates to the summit next year to discuss in order to promote fertilizer use and soil health on the continent?

They should discuss “how to help youth become fertilizers and soil health management champions as tomorrow’s leading generation ”