New Books | Finding Common Ground

Women smallholder farmers bring a necessary diversity to ways of working the land and are key to the growth of South Africa’s rural economy.

This is an excerpt from Wandile Sihlobo’s Finding Common Ground: Land, Equity and Agriculture (Picador Africa, 2020). 

Women deserve more credit in farming 

3 August 2017 
There was little mention of the fact that almost two-thirds of the 44 000 people who lost agricultural jobs in the first quarter of this year were women. This brought the number of women participating in the South African agricultural labour market to 278 000 in total, which equals a third of the sector’s total labour force. It is clearly distressing that women continue to be vulnerable workers, especially if we consider the role that women play in the agricultural sector. As the World Farmers Organization points out, 80% of Africa’s agricultural production is produced by smallholder farmers, and a large part of this is produced by women.

These are important developments, not only because it is Women’s Month in South Africa, but for the simple reason that we need diversity in all key positions of the agricultural sector. Crucially, as the agricultural sector continues to be viewed as an epicentre of growth and development in South Africa, it is important that diversity is also prioritised along these economic growth ambitions.

On leadership roles, there has been progress in the past few years in increasing the number of women in management positions within the agricultural sector. Several national agricultural associations and organisations, such as Fruit South Africa, Grain South Africa’s Farmer Development Programme and Agbiz Grain, among others, have prominent women at the helm.

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With regard to the national labour market, women remain in the minority as far as the agricultural sector employment figures are concerned, averaging at 30% in Statistics South Africa’s database covering the past nine years. The National Development Plan suggests that agriculture has the potential to create one million jobs by 2030. The view on whether this will be an attainable target is debatable, but the most important issue would be to explore ways of addressing gender disparities in these potential jobs so as to improve the share of women in the agricultural labour market in the next few years.

This should not only be limited to the labour market and farms, but also in public forums and policy discussion. Given the structure of agriculture in Africa, which shows that a large share of smallholder production is attributed to women, it is counterintuitive to continue seeing male domination in agricultural public and policy engagements.

Apart from the gender equality argument, we are missing out on the potentially rich diversity of views and the vital learning that would otherwise emanate from the very people who work the land, particularly in discussions regarding smallholder farmer development programmes if women remain underrepresented. The public discussion forums should mirror the gender structures seen on the production side in order to effectively address its concerns.

Diversity in representation could also be beneficial to policymakers, as they will be able to calibrate well-informed development programmes for the sector if their consultations mirror the true gender structure of the sector. In a similar vein, for investors and development practitioners to maximise the opportunities in the sector, they should engage directly with the people who are working the land – women. On 20 July, I chaired a session under the theme “Towards a Food Secure 2030” organised by the Oliver and Adelaide Tambo Foundation in partnership with Absa bank. In the panel we had an Absa bank analyst, Wessel Lemmer, an Agri SA analyst, Hamlet Hlomendlini, a University of Fort Hare research professor, Voster Muchenje, and a farmer, Sibuyiselwe Sontundu.

Sontundu is a successful young female farmer from the rural town of Mqanduli in the Eastern Cape province. In her introductory remarks, she told a moving story of how she got involved in the agricultural sector at an early age in 1999, with good support from the government and organised agriculture groups. Over the years, she managed to upskill herself, and grow and diversify her farming business. She currently produces grains and livestock and supplies local businesses. Sontundu’s business might not be big when viewed on a national scale, but it certainly makes a big difference in the rural economy of the town of Mqanduli. More importantly, she has over 10 people permanently employed and regularly creates seasonal jobs.

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What touched me is how she inspired some young women in the audience. The enthusiasm was clear from a number of questions that followed after our discussion session. I am sure that there are many more Sontundus out there, but some will fail to reach their full potential if they do not receive proper support from both government and the private sector. Muchenje also remarked that his classes contained a number of women who were pursuing scientific research on aspects within the agricultural sector. They too require equal opportunities to share their knowledge in order to advance South Africa’s agricultural sector in a fair and equitable way, which will inspire more women to be interested in agriculture.

I strongly feel that this diversity discussion in agriculture should be introduced to young students from an early stage. There is growing momentum in discussions about the need to attract the youth to the agricultural sector, and this discussion needs to be held in conjunction with initiatives to diversify the sector and ensure participation by women.

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