Financial Equality for Africa’s Women Farmers

Africa remains one of the world’s most gender-unequal regions, a place where
perceptions, attitudes, and traditional roles conspire to limit women’s access
to healthcare, education, and economic resources. To overcome these obstacles,
women need greater access to financial services and farm-related credit.
WESSELS/AFP/Getty Images

Around the world, social movements like #MeToo and #TimesUp are inspiring important
conversations about the inequitable practices women have long faced in every
aspect of their lives. In some cases, these discussions have led to measurable
in how women are treated on the job, at home, and elsewhere
in society.
most of the focus to date has been on women in the West, or those living in
urban areas. Rural women, and particularly poor female farmers in Sub-Saharan
Africa, have not yet benefited from the recent focus on gender equality. But if
Africa’s gender gap is ever to be closed, the unique obstacles that African
women confront must become part of the global dialogue.
Africa is among the world’s most
gender-unequal regions
. According to the United Nations Development
Programme (UNDP), “perceptions,
attitudes, and historic gender roles
” limit women’s access to health
care and education, and lead to disproportionate levels of family
responsibility, job segregation, and sexual violence.
perhaps the biggest obstacle to gender equality in Sub-Saharan Africa is money;
simply put, women have less of it. According to the World Bank, 37% of women
in the region have a bank account, compared to 48% of men. And, while the
percentages are low for both sexes, what is troubling is that the gap has
widened over the past several years
, even as total financing
available to the world’s poor has increased
women dominate African agriculture, the continent’s most important
. But this has not translated into greater control of
finances. One measure of this deficiency is rates of borrowing; in East Africa,
where my organization works, women borrow 13% less money for farm-related
activities than men do. Illiteracy, limited land ownership, and restrictions on
agency and mobility all conspire to reduce rural women’s access to farm
barriers have had a dramatic impact on social and economic progress. For
starters, the lack of capital makes it difficult for women to buy quality seeds
and fertilizer, or even to access farmland, which in turn reduces agricultural
. Crop yields in the region lag far
behind global averages
, in part because women are unable to invest
enough in their operations.
inequality is also costly on a macro level. The UNDP estimates that failure to
integrate women into national economies costs the countries of Sub-Saharan
Africa a combined $95 billion
in lost productivity
every year. When women living in poverty are
unable to work or contribute socially, growth stagnates.
On the
other hand, when women farmers have access to financing, the benefits go far
beyond the fields. Financial empowerment has been proven to increase
female participation in community decision-making
. Moreover, women’s
financial inclusion helps combat social marginalization and improves
family wellbeing
; when mothers have a degree of control over
household finances, their children are less likely to die from malnutrition and
more likely to thrive.
these benefits, the question is not whether women in rural Africa need expanded
access to farm-related capital, but rather how to provide it. One solution is
to craft programs that consider disparities in education and mobility when
awarding loans. Accounting for social discrimination is essential if girls and
women are to benefit fully from available financing. Another option is to build
on successful mediation
that help women discuss financial inclusion with their
But one
of the most important changes would be committed leadership by financial
institutions. If banks and lending services offered products that met the needs
of women, more women would have access to financial resources. For example,
banks could devise specific loan programs for crops that are traditionally grown by
female farmers
– such as groundnuts or sunflowers. Financial
institutions could also encourage female leadership in farmers’ cooperatives,
and support markets where women sell their harvests.
current rates of financial inclusion, it will take the world more than 200
years to achieve
gender parity
. That is unacceptable. Progress toward women’s
empowerment does not have to be that slow. If governments, international
actors, and the financial industry make a concerted effort to devise and
sustain more gender-focused policies, it won’t be.