What Part Do Women Play in Agricultural Labor?

Since it was first cited in a 1972 paper by the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, the idea that women perform 60-80 percent of agricultural labor in Africa has been a central theme in the broader debate about gender and development. A new study released by the World Bank’s Living Standards Measurement Study – Integrated Surveys on Agriculture (LSMSISA) initiative is now calling this commonly accepted wisdom into question, however.

In their new working paper, How Much of the Labor in African Agriculture Is Provided by Women, authors Amparo Palacios-Lopez, Luc Christiaensen, and Talip Kilic use nationally representative household surveys conducted from 2009-2011 (and at least once thereafter) in Ethiopia, Malawi, Niger, Nigeria, Tanzania, and Uganda. These countries make up approximately 40 percent of the region’s total population. The surveys collected plot-level data for each household member, allowing researchers to gain a more detailed understanding of women’s time allocation to crop production across different settings, crops, and farm activities. 

After controlling for potential gender- and knowledge-related biases, the authors came up with a new “headline number” – women’s average share of agricultural labor in these six countries is only 40 percent.. There was wide variation across countries, however, with women in Uganda performing 56 percent of farm work and women in Niger performing only 24 percent. In fact, women’s labor contributions varied even within countries: in northern Nigeria, women performed 32 percent of agricultural labor, but this number rose to 51 percent in southern Nigeria.

Adult women in female-headed households spend a much larger portion of their time on agricultural tasks, particularly when there are no men in the household. It appears that more educated women tend to provide a larger share of their households’ agricultural labor, and women contribute a larger share if they own the land and if they make up a larger share of the household’s workforce.

The study finds little evidence that women’s labor allocation changes based on the type of crop produced, belying the idea that women tend to devote more of their time on staple and food crops while men concentrate on non-edible cash crops. Similarly, with the exception of Ethiopia and Niger, men and women were not found to engage in different farming activities (for example, men did not spend significantly more time on land preparation such as plowing), although this may be due in part to the lack of mechanization in many of the study countries.

So what are the implications for future policymaking? The authors are careful to point out that while the study’s findings contradict some commonly held beliefs about women and agriculture, programs and policies concentrating on female farmers can still provide important support for Africa’s development agenda, including increased gender equity and women’s empowerment. The use of household-level findings, such as those produced by the LSMS-ISA program, can ensure that future discussions surrounding gender and agricultural policy move forward based on solid empirical evidence.

Photo credit:Flickr: IFPRI_Images