Women Farmers Feed the World

It’s harvest season in Burkina Faso. Throughout the West African nation’s rural regions, small farmers—mostly women—are harvesting millet, rice, and sorghum to feed large families. After a full day gathering grains, each wife will continue the work, tending her own small garden to feed her children.

The harvest marks the end of the “lean season,” the dangerous months after the year’s food supply has dwindled and the next crops have not yet arrived—a time that leaves many women foraging for their children.

West Africa—and much of the rest of the world—is facing a food crisis. Nearly one billion people are hungry, according to the World Hunger Education Service, and farmers throughout the Global South are experiencing escalating anxiety over the appropriation and control of land, seeds, and farming techniques by foreign governments and corporations—manifested in “land-grabbing,” seed monopolization, genetic modification, and the imposition of high-tech, water-, chemical-, and energy-intensive monocrops.

The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) is a Gates Foundation-funded initiative based in Nairobi and spearheaded by Kofi Annan, former secretary general of the U.N. It’s a multimillion-dollar project that seeks to increase food production in Africa by implementing vigorous Western-style agricultural techniques, promising high-yield results for food-insecure populations.

According to the Gates Foundation and other supporters, it’s an African-led endeavor, modeled on the previous Green Revolutions of Latin America and the Indian sub-continent but placed in the hands of Africans. It sounds like a good idea.

But a growing movement of local farmers—largely led by women—argue that the surest path to food security is securing food sovereignty. It’s a concept that was put forward in the early 90’s by Via Campesina, an international alliance of peasant, indigenous, and women’s organizations that advocates for communities’ control over how food is produced, and who gets to eat it.

The original Green Revolution, beginning in the 1940’s, pushed widespread use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and equipment whose expense was out of reach for most peasant farmers. Critics point out that years of water-intensive farming has depleted water tables, while increased use of chemicals has severely damaged soil in some areas. And while new seeds and tools may bring higher production in the short term, many Africans fear the consolidated control corporations exercise over the food supply, the precarious dependence on large amounts of water and energy inputs, and the environmental toll such methods may eventually take.

The International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), sponsored by the U.N. and published in 2009, found that the adoption of agrochemicals and monocropping, among other technologies, have harmed more than the land. They’ve also hurt local communities and economies, benefiting transnational corporations with “near-total control” of food production.

Marcia Ishii-Eiteman, lead author of the IAASTD report, emphasizes instead the importance of agroecological farming, an approach that supports localized farming and draws on traditional agricultural knowledge. It not only considers productivity, sustainability, and resilience, but also equity.

This is good news for women. Women, according to Ishii-Eiteman, make up a huge percentage of the world’s small food producers (who, she says, together grow about 70 percent of the food supply). They do the most to get food on the table, and they’re usually the last to eat it.

Fatou Batta works with Groundswell International, an organization that partners with small-farmer groups across the world, including in Burkina Faso. She’s helping to lead a broad grassroots alliance that shows that small farmers‚ and especially women, can feed the world if we give them the resources to control their food, and the right to eat it too.

Christa Hillstrom: Let’s talk about food sovereignty. How do people in West Africa understand this concept?

Fatou Batta: In our context, it is related to the type of food we want to eat and produce, and having the ability to produce what we eat. It seems that in the U.S., food justice is much better understood than food sovereignty. But in our context, controlling the production of what we eat is key—not just get something that is imposed.

You talk about equity—economic equity, gender equity—as a key ingredient of sovereignty. I think a lot of people don’t think equity when they think about food security. They think of resilience, sustainability, and high yields. Why is it important to include equity in building long-term security in food production? How does that bring women into the picture?

First of all, it’s a question of rights. Women are key in producing food. They are working on the farm, they’re producing through labor, and when it comes to using food, they are the last ones to be able to eat it. It’s important to make sure those who contribute to producing the food also have access to eat equitably. In the family, usually males have the right to eat first. I think it’s unfair. It’s discrimination. So if we’re talking about the right to food, we have to be looking at the gender imbalance.

Could you give an idea of what it’s like to be a woman farmer in West Africa?

The way it works is, there is land for the whole family. On that land, it’s the head of household—the man—who manages it. But the labor is largely produced by the women and children. In many places in Burkina, the woman has a small plot of land with which to produce something like okra because she has the responsibility of feeding the family using extra ingredients. The whole family produces staples like millet and sorghum. But they still have to make some type of sauce—like a soup with vegetables. This is the responsibility of individual women.

Read the rest of this interview at YES! magazine.

Top: Fatou Batta; All photos courtesy of Groundswell International


  1. Elizabeth Steger says:

    I just returned from West Africa. I went to visit my daughter who is finishing her 2 years as a Peace Corp Volunteer. I received a traditional warm DANCE FILLED welcome! Djennabou, “our mother”, has 6 children and her husband Samba is a farmer. Yes, harvest is in. Peanuts, cotton everywhere. I am excited to meet the mother who has cared for my daughter for two years. My daughter tosses me a complet (African dress and headpiece). “Wear this” she commands. We approach the village with drummers and women in colorful dress. We dance. We smile exchange glances and dance for hours. Djennabou’s “our mother”. My daughter acts as translator. I watch her work fast to pluck the chicken, cook over a open fire with a babe on her back. He likes the shake flashlight as darkness comes. She tucks the flashlight under her arm. She washes her other children, sets to nurse baby Fatou. She is a good cook. Chicken, onion, potatoes – and for the American, noodles in lieu of rice. D’jennabou feeds children who have been cast away, a few extra per night. My daughter says they come to eat and be mothered. Mostly adolescent boys. Children abound.It is noised filled as the goats, cows, chickens are kept near at night – set out to pasture during the days.
    I learn from her she wants so much good healthcare. Often md’s buy a license. They had a good doctor once. He is retired. She gave birth to her 6th child in a dirty hospital ( encouraged per aid peoples). She hated it. No fetal monitors or even stethescope to listen to babies heart beat). “I would rather birth at home – I clean my hut” No schooling. Yes, there are schools but when a teacher won’t take the terrible pot filled roads to get to the village – why send the child? I learn teachers are often not paid per state =thus do not work. They want and need their children educated. Her husband would like to try organic cotton next year. He and Cara discuss how much field to risk a new crop. Cara studied agro/forestry at U of Illinois. She shares what she knows. They scoop me away from the compound around ten pm. I am off to a local hotel with beds and mosquito nets.
    Again, the next day at the village I am immersed in the work. Everything fights for my attention. A 5 year old ties a babe on her back to get to work, gather well water, sticks for firewood. They boys are playing futbol. Moms are working, hand laundry, (they WANT washboards)- stone is too hard on the fabric. I hold whatever babe is not afraid of the new toubab(white person). Fatou is precious. She is 5 months. Sitting well, grabbing well, smiley. She likes my fine hairs and tucks her hands in it. D’jennabou approached me with her breast out. My translator is mia. I am ok with her I tell our mom. She swifts the baby away to feed her. Not because Fatou is hungry now but mom had stuff to do. She must go to another village to a funeral then another to a baptism. She feeds the baby and if off. I try to help the girls take a long wood pole and smash the scraped corn in a tall wood pale. The corn get smashed into some flour type dust. It takes hours. Nothing is wasted. The corn cobs will be used to fuel the fire this evening. There is a bull in the village. the elders chastise the children to stay clear of him. A little girl has a long stick. She is about one. She has learned that the stick upon a piece of cooking metal will make a sound. She does this over and over, laughing at each ping she produces. At dinner time this night I was reminded of home. Djenabou is cooking, baby is fussing. She yells for her husband to take the baby as Fatou is crying and wash the boys. All hands on deck. As a mother of five, I have called my husband and said roughly the same thing. Are you blind, deaf? Take the baby – I need help. He walks and soothes Fatou. Le sigh. Dinner is over.
    I left Africa. Africa has not left my mind since. The news in the US seems superficial. Barbie choises make national news. Doens’t every know? Some do. Life could be much harder than we could imagine. I feel lazy. I feel spoiled. I cannot figure out how life is so unfair. Or what I can do to help. I left learning we want the same as they want. Education, Healthcare, a future for our kids.

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