Women Farmers Feed the World
In West Africa, women’s resistance to the new Green Revolution shows that the question of agricultural sustainability is also a question of equality.
By Christa Hillstrom
It’s harvest season in Burkina Faso. Throughout the West African nation’s rural regions, small farmers—mostly women—are harvesting millet, rice, and sorghum to feed large families. After a full day gathering grains, each wife will continue the work, tending her own small garden to feed her children.
The harvest marks the end of the “lean season,” the dangerous months after the year’s food supply has dwindled and the next crops have not yet arrived—a time that leaves many women foraging for their children.
West Africa—and much of the rest of the world—is facing a food crisis. Nearly one billion people are hungry, according to the World Hunger Education Service, and farmers throughout the Global South are experiencing escalating anxiety over the appropriation and control of land, seeds, and farming techniques by foreign governments and corporations—manifested in “land-grabbing,” seed monopolization, genetic modification, and the imposition of high-tech, water-, chemical-, and energy-intensive monocrops.
The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) is a Gates Foundation-funded initiative based in Nairobi and spearheaded by Kofi Annan, former secretary general of the U.N. It’s a multimillion-dollar project that seeks to increase food production in Africa by implementing vigorous Western-style agricultural techniques, promising high-yield results for food-insecure populations.
According to the Gates Foundation and other supporters, it’s an African-led endeavor, modeled on the previous Green Revolutions of Latin America and the Indian sub-continent but placed in the hands of Africans. It sounds like a good idea.
But a growing movement of local farmers—largely led by women—argue that the surest path to food security is securing food sovereignty. It’s a concept that was put forward in the early 90’s by Via Campesina, an international alliance of peasant, indigenous, and women’s organizations that advocates for communities’ control over how food is produced, and who gets to eat it.
The original Green Revolution, beginning in the 1940’s, pushed widespread use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and equipment whose expense was out of reach for most peasant farmers. Critics point out that years of water-intensive farming has depleted water tables, while increased use of chemicals has severely damaged soil in some areas. And while new seeds and tools may bring higher production in the short term, many Africans fear the consolidated control corporations exercise over the food supply, the precarious dependence on large amounts of water and energy inputs, and the environmental toll such methods may eventually take.
The International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), sponsored by the U.N. and published in 2009, found that the adoption of agrochemicals and monocropping, among other technologies, have harmed more than the land. They’ve also hurt local communities and economies, benefiting transnational corporations with “near-total control” of food production.
Marcia Ishii-Eiteman, lead author of the IAASTD report, emphasizes instead the importance of agroecological farming, an approach that supports localized farming and draws on traditional agricultural knowledge. It not only considers productivity, sustainability, and resilience, but also equity.
This is good news for women. Women, according to Ishii-Eiteman, make up a huge percentage of the world’s small food producers (who, she says, together grow about 70 percent of the food supply). They do the most to get food on the table, and they’re usually the last to eat it.
Fatou Batta works with Groundswell International, an organization that partners with small-farmer groups across the world, including in Burkina Faso. She’s helping to lead a broad grassroots alliance that shows that small farmers‚ and especially women, can feed the world if we give them the resources to control their food, and the right to eat it too.
Photo courtesy of Groundswell International.
Christa Hillstrom: Let’s talk about food sovereignty. How do people in West Africa understand this concept?
Fatou Batta: In our context, it is related to the type of food we want to eat and produce, and having the ability to produce what we eat. It seems that in the U.S., food justice is much better understood than food sovereignty. But in our context, controlling the production of what we eat is key—not just get something that is imposed.
Christa Hillstrom: You talk about equity—economic equity, gender equity—as a key ingredient of sovereignty. I think a lot of people don’t think equity when they think about food security. They think of resilience, sustainability, and high yields. Why is it important to include equity in building long-term security in food production? How does that bring women into the picture?
Fatou Batta: First of all, it’s a question of rights. Women are key in producing food. They are working on the farm, they’re producing through labor, and when it comes to using food, they are the last ones to be able to eat it. It’s important to make sure those who contribute to producing the food also have access to eat equitably. In the family, usually males have the right to eat first. I think it’s unfair. It’s discrimination. So if we’re talking about the right to food, we have to be looking at the gender imbalance.
Christa Hillstrom: Could you give an idea of what it’s like to be a woman farmer in West Africa?
Fatou Batta: The way it works is, there is land for the whole family. On that land, it’s the head of household—the man—who manages it. But the labor is largely produced by the women and children. In many places in Burkina, the woman has a small plot of land with which to produce something like okra because she has the responsibility of feeding the family using extra ingredients. The whole family produces staples like millet and sorghum. But they still have to make some type of sauce—like a soup with vegetables. This is the responsibility of individual women.
Christa Hillstrom: So each wife is producing for her own children.
Fatou Batta: Yes. And usually her plot of land is completely depleted and will not yield much. During the rainy season, she will go in the morning and work with the husband and children [and other wives] on the large plot of land, the land for the whole family. She will spend almost the whole day there. The time for her own plot would be in the afternoon when the sun goes down. After the work on the large family land, she will go to her own land to work there before she goes back home, and—after collecting firewood—cook for the whole family. The work burden on her is large.
Seasons of Hunger
Christa Hillstrom: You mentioned the lean season, when women must often forage to feed their children because stores from the harvest have run out.
Fatou Batta: From the harvest, which occurs between October and November, until February or March, people usually have something to eat. But from March until the next planting period, this is the hardest part: The food is finished and it’s hard to feed everybody. This is the time we call the hunger season. It could last five, six, or seven months. One family may run out of food after just three months, meaning that for the next nine months they are food insecure.
Christa Hillstrom: So into this situation comes a new push toward an African Green Revolution. What do farmers think about this?
Fatou Batta: The Green Revolution requires using a lot of water. What will happen in case of a drought? Farmers believe it’s better for them to go from what they know, what they have been using for years. They still have in mind what happened in Asia and Latin America with the Green Revolutions there, and they see it as something they cannot control—they fear dependence on all of these pesticides, chemicals, and imports.
Traditionally, farmers control their own seeds—and share them. Women are the keepers of those seeds. But with AGRA, all of this is going to be out of the farmers’ control. This is why we are doing this whole campaign, saying, “We are the solution.” The solution cannot come from elsewhere. It’s already there.
Christa Hillstrom: Supporters of the Green Revolution technologies argue, you have these dangerous lean seasons, and these new seeds can produce more food to eliminate hunger. What do local people say to that?
Women are those who store the seeds and can protect traditional seeds. If you take their seeds, it’s like you’re taking their soul away.
Fatou Batta: First of all, it’s not yet evident the new seed will produce. It’s dependent on fertilizer, pesticide, and new technologies. Plus, here people rely on the rainfall—there is no irrigation. If you cannot control the water, what will happen if you apply the chemical fertilizer and then there is no rain? You could lose everything. So even if these new seeds can double the yield, there are some necessary environmental conditions that are not always met.
Plus there’s the cost. Most small farmers cannot afford chemical fertilizers and pesticides because it’s very expensive. But farmers have a way of selecting traditional seeds to see which ones are really performing, knowledge that has come down through generations. They do their own selection of what seeds are really good for what context and what seeds can be resilient to drought.
So we all agree that it’s important to increase productivity, but there are some necessary conditions to make it environmentally sustainable.
Seed / Money
If you don’t have control of your life, it’s like you are lying on someone’s mat and at any moment you can be thrown away.
Christa Hillstrom: It seems like seeds are much more than just tools for food production. What role do they play in culture?
Fatou Batta: Women are those who store the seeds and can protect traditional seeds. If you take their seeds, it’s like you’re taking their soul away. Whatever improved seed you give them, they will still keep the traditional seed because it reflects their culture. They don’t want to get rid of it. Under the Green Revolution, it’s something that might no longer exist.
Christa Hillstrom: It sounds like this culture of commodity from outside is invading something on a spiritual level—companies come in and patent seeds, take ownership of them, and it kills something.
Fatou Batta: Yes, it kills something. In terms of culture, it kills something. In terms of local knowledge, it kills something. Putting farmers in debt because they depend on a corporation, in our culture, is like you lie down on the mat of someone. That’s a cultural image. If you don’t have control of your life, it’s like you are lying on someone’s mat and at any moment you can be thrown away.
Christa Hillstrom: You’ve said that women who are illiterate may feel like they don’t have much to teach, but these are also the women with the traditional knowledge and farming experience that we’ll need in coming times. What’s an example of that knowledge?
Fatou Batta: Because women are central to food security, they have developed strategies to feed their families in case of things like crop failure. They collect firewood, and they know what is in the bush, what types of species. They learn what can and cannot be consumed. When there is hardship, they will go back to the bush to collect what can be consumed—some leaves, some roots, some fruit.
The shea nut tree is a bank for women. It takes a long time to grow, and they use the nuts to make butter. Traditionally, that’s a main source of fat. The shea nut butter is also medicinal, and the nut can be sold for money. It is a coping mechanism during the lean season. When the rain starts, during planting time, the food in the family is usually gone. But in the bush the shea nut fruit is ready and they can eat it.
What we’ve observed happening now is that through all this technology imported with the Green Revolution, large areas of land are being converted to cash cropping. They cut down the trees and destroy vegetation. This means that women are losing their back-up sources of income and food. Some of the species don’t exist anymore in some parts of the country.
An Alliance for a Farmers’ Revolution in Africa
Christa Hillstrom: Traditional coping knowledge is critical to hang on to. How are local people—many of them illiterate—preserving and sharing strategies that go against the grain of agricultural principles of monocropping, genetic modification, and chemical farming, especially if they’re not writing it down?
Fatou Batta: What is being done is through exchange visits. Groups of women visit each other and share their knowledge about using natural resources and techniques. They bring ideas back and try them through experimentation. You visit one farmer who experiences similar problems and difficulties, and she has tried something that really succeeded. You bring it home and learn from it.
Christa Hillstrom: Sounds like “We are the Solution” could be a transformative campaign, if it can survive what it’s up against. What sort of support do you need to give the small farmer movement a real shot at flourishing?
Fatou Batta: I think it requires alliances—getting together and developing advocacy and also making pressure on our leaders. We need to say it’s important to invest more in sustainable technologies. Because of the activists nowadays, the debate is happening within the farmer network, and they’re trying to hold our leaders accountable.
Christa Hillstrom: So what gives you hope that it can really take root?
Fatou Batta: What is still working is the bond, the relation between people and communities—the solidarity.
Christa Hillstrom: Whose face do you see when you look at the big picture?
Photo courtesy of Groundswell International.
Fatou Batta: Many, many, many cases: A lady whose husband migrated and left her with six children to feed. But the land her husband’s family gave her was not good land. That’s normal—women get land that’s not good land, completely degraded. Then they work to improve it. She worked hard. She improved her land based on techniques she learned from one of Groundswell’s partners, a local organization that trained her on how to improve the land using some organic manure, etc. The first years were hard, but finally she was able to produce, and now she is completely self-sufficient.
Christa Hillstrom: What would you like to say to the powerful proponents of AGRA?
Fatou Batta: The willingness to feed the poor is good. But the strategy is not a good one. It’s completely the opposite of what can work. Just listen, really listen, to small-scale farmers—because they are the ones who feed the world.