Malawi's Women Face Barriers to Climate-Smart Agriculture

Climate change and weather variability are posing challenges for smallholder farmers worldwide, but women farmers tend to be even harder hit due to a lack of resources. According to the first article in a special issue of Gender, Technology and Development released in July, women farmers in Malawi lack access to basic agricultural tools, as well as to new technologies and practices that can enhance labor productivity and aid in climate change adaptation.

 The authors report that in 2007, the UN rated Malawi one of Africa south of the Sahara’s most vulnerable countries to the negative effects of climate change. Prolonged dry spells, poor rainfall distribution, and flooding along river basins all pose threats to Malawi’s agriculture, which is primarily rain-fed and dominated by smallholder farmers. These threats have had significant impact economic and human impact. Flooding in 2015 is estimated by the Malawi government to have cost USD 335 million in crop and infrastructure loss and damage, affecting over 1.1 million people.

The Malawian government has placed significant emphasis on addressing these challenges, with the establishment of several national initiatives to promote climate-smart agriculture (CSA) practices. These include the Greenbelt Initiative to increase the level of irrigation used in agriculture; the Malawi Agricultural Sector-Wide Approach (2011–2015) to promote conservation farming technologies; the Malawi Farm Input Subsidy Programme (FISP) to increase the use of inorganic fertilizers among smallholders; and Malawi’s Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDC) 2015 Report to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC’s) COP21 to map out the country’s climate change adaptation and mitigation activities. While these programs have acknowledged gender as a critical factor in CSA, however, women farmers are still being significantly left out.

Utilizing a combination of literature review, surveys, focus group studies, and time-use tracking using activity clocks, the study looks at women’s agricultural decision-making power, time use, and access to both basic agricultural tools and CSA-specific technologies. The study covered 1,592 women smallholders in the Nkhamenya and Kabudula regions of Malawi and looked specifically at maize production (the main staple crop produced in these areas) and tobacco production (the main cash crop produced).

In terms of landholding and agricultural decision-making, the focus groups indicate that in these areas, men typically own the land and that women farmers have limited control over the land they use and the decisions made regarding that land. This can impact women’s labor productivity by preventing them from adopting tools and resources that would help them use the land most efficiently.

One such tool is irrigation technology. This can range from simple approaches like watering cans and water diversion to more advanced technologies like sprinkler and precision irrigation systems. However, the adoption of these different techniques differs for men and women. According to the study, research has shown that women smallholders in Malawi were more likely to pay for subsidized treadle pumps using cash, whereas men smallholders were more likely to pay for the tool using a loan. This indicates that women may have less access to financing than men when it comes to CSA technology like irrigation tools.

Further, women appear to be using these technologies much less frequently than men. Of the 1,589 smallholder women farmers in surveyed in Nkhamenya and Kabudula, only 45 percent used irrigation methods during the dry season. In addition, most of this 45 percent only used basic methods like watering cans; only six women reported that they used channel pump irrigation systems, while only one reported using a treadle pump.

The Malawi Farm Input Subsidy Programme (FISP) aims to increase smallholders’ access to inorganic fertilizers, but according to the article, the literature has suggested that the program has had only an insignificant effect on women-headed households. The study itself also finds evidence to support this. While 79.5 percent of the women surveyed reported using either fertilizer or farmyard manure on their land, further investigation revealed that only 12.63 percent of women smallholders in Nkhamenya and Kabudula use inorganic fertilizers and only 4.95 percent and 0.81 percent use green manure/crop residues or compost, respectively. These findings suggest that women smallholders in these areas do not have access to climate-smart or efficiency-enhancing fertilizer choices.

Women in these areas of Malawi also lack access to agricultural and agri-processing tools that can enhance labor productivity and encourage adoption of CSA practices. The study finds that most women smallholders only have access to traditional hand hoes, other small tools, and their own hands and legs for planting, weeding, and harvesting. This is obviously more labor intensive, time-consuming, and inefficient than the use of mechanized tools, and it also prevents women from engaging in CSA practices that cannot be conducted with these basic tools. For example, the planting of trees for agro-forestry practices requires digging larger and deeper holes than can be done with simple tools.

Overall, the article points out that while Malawi’s programs to encourage the adoption of CSA practices by smallholder farmers (including women) are ambitious and well-intentioned, these programs are not actually reaching rural women smallholders, at least in the study areas. Women in Nkhamenya and Kabudula lack access to the tools, credit, and financing needed to adopt CSA practices; in addition, even when women have access to such resources, they often still lack the decision-making power to adopt them. In order to encourage adoption of CSA practices by women smallholders, a greater understanding of men’s and women’s different roles, access to resources and technologies, and decision-making power needs to be gained. This will enable policymakers to address gaps in resources and funding and better target CSA programs to meet the needs of rural women.

By: Sara Gustafson, IFPRI

Photo credit:Mitchell Maher / International Food Policy Institute