Men and Women See Unequal Access to Benefits of Biofortification

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Biofortified crops, such as orange-fleshed sweet potatoes, have been shown to reduce malnutrition and micronutrient deficiency, especially in children, and increase farm households’ incomes. Whether or not farmers adopt these new crops, however, depends on individual farmers’ perceptions of biofortification’s benefits. In a recent article in Food Security, researchers examine both men’s and women’s perceptions of the economic and health benefits of orange-fleshed sweet potatoes (OFSP) in the Phalombe and Chikwawa districts of Malawi; OFSP constitutes an important food security crop in these regions.

By conducting a gender analysis of the orange-fleshed sweet potato system in these areas, the authors aim to better understand how men and women may benefit differently from the production, consumption, and marketing of the crop and how biofortification interventions can be designed to benefit all household members equally.

Utilizing a social relations approach (SRA) that incorporated sex-disaggregated focus group discussions, the study collected data from November 2013 to January 2014. The focus groups were led by two male and two female facilitators, and individual interviews were conducted by the study’s  principal investigator. A total of 17 focus group discussions were conducted (8 with female farmers and 9 with male farmers); each focus group included 10 participants. In addition, two focus group discussions were conducted with male extension workers (a total of 8 participants).  Thus, a total of 178 people participated in the focus groups. In addition, 16 Decentralized Vine Multipliers (participants who grow and orange-fleshed sweet potatoes for their vines rather than their roots) participated in individual interviews.

Both men and women farmers named perceived economic and health benefits as key reasons driving their decision to start cultivating orange-fleshed sweet potato. Participants reported that they saw OFSP as producing much higher yields than other crops. In addition, they perceived demand for OFSP to be higher than demand for white-fleshed sweet potatoes; participants also reported a belief that OFSP could bring a higher price than traditional sweet potatoes. Thus, the cultivation of OFSP, particularly the vines, was generally seen as being more financially rewarding than the cultivation of other crops.

Both men and women also reported that cultivating OFSP improved their households’ food supply, since the crop is available during the lean season; in addition, women reported being able to barter their sweet potatoes for other foods within the community, improving their dietary diversity. The bartering system tends to be dominated by women, while men tend to dominate cash sales of OFSP vines.

Investing the income gained through the sale of OFSP in other agricultural inputs was also an important perceived economic benefit among both men and women. In particular, farmers emphasized their ability to purchase livestock with the money made through the sale of OFSP. Women tended to purchase goats, while men purchase larger livestock such as cattle.

Many women farmers mentioned that the cultivation of OFSP was a source of empowerment for them, as it gave them income they could control independently of their husbands. The study found that many of the DVMs were male, giving the men control over sale of the OFSP vines; however, many women were in control of the cultivation and sale of the roots. Thus, while many of the women interviewed did not have full control over the money from the sale of OFSP as a whole, cultivation of the root and engagement in the community bartering system did give them more ability to make decisions about smaller household purchases, such as food items and kitchen utensils.

In terms of the perceived health benefits of OFSP, both men and women noted increased energy, improved eyesight, and improved health and cognitive abilities in their children. Women also listed improvements in their skin and improvement in birth outcomes, while men emphasized that consumption of OFSP meant higher vitamin consumption.

As mentioned previously, women’s role in the cultivation of OFSP was often confined to the crop’s root, rather than the vines, which can bring higher incomes. The study found that female participants worried that selling the root alone would not be enough to yield higher incomes. The paper identifies several reasons why women tend not to be involved in the cultivation of OFSP vines. First, they often lack the necessary equipment; irrigation equipment was reported as being important to the cultivation of vines, and many women reported not even having access to watering cans. Second, the cultivation of vines is time-consuming, and women’s time is often taken up with other domestic chores. Thus, many women reported choosing crops that were less demanding (such as maize). Finally, many women reported a preference for crops over which they had complete control. For example, women often retain control of the income made through the sale of rice or OFSP roots; by contrast, the cultivation of OFSP vines tends to be a household endeavor, with the head of the household (often male) retaining ultimate control over the economic benefits.  

The study also found that women tend to have less access to lucrative markets for OFSP vines. Institutional buyers such as government agencies and NGOs tend to work larger, registered vine multipliers, who tend to be men. Thus, female farmers who produce vines at a lesser scale cannot break into these larger markets. In addition, extension workers reported cultural norms as another barrier to women’s participation in the vine market.

The study’s findings have several important implications for the design of future orange-fleshed sweet potato interventions. While the perceived economic benefits of OFSP cultivation is a major driver behind farmers’ decisions to adopt the crop, it is important to recognize that men and women often do not have equal access to those benefits. For instance, while the cultivation of OFSP vines can bring higher incomes, women typically do not have control over the money made through vine markets. This limits women’s ability to make decisions regarding household expenditures, as well as their ability to invest in larger assets such as cattle (most women report investing in smaller animals like goats and pigs) or irrigation equipment.

Overall, the study highlights that the link between agriculture and nutrition relies not only on the cultivation and consumption of nutritious foods but also on the ability of both men and women to depend upon agriculture to generate income and use that income to enhance their households’ dietary diversity. Interventions aimed at encouraging the adoption of biofortified crops, such as orange-fleshed sweet potato, should focus on ensuring that both men and women farmers are able to actively participate in and benefit from the program. This will include better training of extension officers and project implementers to understand the needs and constraints of female farmers and to engage with women to address those challenges.

By: Sara Gustafson, IFPRI

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