How African Agriculture expresses differences between Men and Women

Millions of dollars have gone into promoting gender equality in many developing countries. More millions continue to be poured into gender programmes. However, it has remained easy to conduct workshops and write documents on gender than to address messy gender issues. Several gender discussions and policies are pitched at a high level of abstraction such that it is difficult for ordinary people, especially the majority of women to see how the notion of gender speaks to their conditions. A key part of the problem has been a tendency to propagate the myth of sameness between men and women.

How African communities account for differences between men and women

Although many African communities are assumed to be gender-imbalanced, Agrarian African communities have practiced gender balance before the word ‘gender’ was invented. They have traditionally been conscious of the differences between masculine and feminine energies. This is seen in their recognition of the fact that men and women have different ways of dealing with socio-economic issues. While masculine approaches focus on specific outcomes informed by efficiency considerations, feminine approaches tend to be more inclusive and holistic. The current emphasis on gender equality does not adequately reveal and build on differences between male and female approaches. A great deal can be learnt from how African agriculture handles masculine and feminine differences.


Agriculture as an expression of masculine and feminine differences

The roles of men and women have had long routes in African tradition. These roles have traditionally been defined along societal, cultural and economic perspectives. A key role for women remains taking care of household requirements such as the wants and needs of children toward sustaining the next generation.  On the other hand men have naturally been the bread winners who focus on wealth creation for the household. Most masculine and feminine socio-economic roles and norms in African communities are founded on these principles, built over centuries. In relation to food and nutrition security, men are more on the production side while women focus on health and nutrition. These roles are currently reproduced along agricultural value chains. Men focus on production and productivity.  In the market, they are responsible for planning and deciding on the supply of bulky commodities like maize, potatoes, sugar beans, cabbages, sweet potatoes and others which have become recognized for fulfilling food security functions. They also participate in the whole marketing value chain, pushing commodities that require a lot of manpower of which the majority of women are not able to do.

Feminine decision making tends to be very important at household nutritional level. Women decide how much of, for instance, 20 bags of maize should go to the market, when and how much should remain for the family’s nutritional requirements. For men, what comes to the market is for wealth creation, for instance investment in livestock, farming implements and sending children to school.  Even if women do such roles, they will be doing what should ideally be done by men. On the other hand, starting from the household, women focus on the nutrition component. They are interested in what other crops can be produced to supplement household nutrition. That is how we end up with groundnuts, beans and different kinds of vegetables whose nutritional value is understood by women at an intuitional level. Where this balance is not taken into account, we end up with a male-dominated food system made up of maize, potatoes and other famous commodities whose nutritional content is completely not balanced.

Unfortunate lack of appropriate agricultural models and the bad side of mechanization

Industrial agriculture has destroyed most traditional agricultural practices that recognize differences between men and women. By now there should be agricultural models that support male and female decision-making processes on an equal basis. Ideally food and nutrition should be separated if useful models are to be built. That will ensure nutrition initiatives ride on the knowledge of women while food security issues ride on male knowledge and sensibility. There is no meaningful technology that can smoothen the processing of nutritional foods that are better understood by women starting from household level. In all African countries, monoculture has diverted the attention of policy makers and industrialists from supporting the value addition of local nutritional foods.

Besides lack of appropriate processing equipment for women, modern mechanization has shifted power from women to men.  For example, while women have traditionally controlled household processing tools such as grinding stones and pestles that were used to produce peanut butter and mealie-meal, as soon as mechanization came in, the ownership of grinding mills, oil expressing machines and others shifted to men. As a result, women’s tacit knowledge has been lost since engineers have not been able to capture women’s tacit knowledge and sensibilities into elegant engineering process manuals. A modern piece of equipment cannot fully capture the roasting process as well as twist and turns that have traditionally been an integral part of women’s knowledge in producing the finest peanut butter and small grains flour.

Feminine knowledge has to receive the respect it deserves

By gathering and articulating differences between masculine and feminine knowledge systems, gender activists can build a strong case for supporting the role of women in socio-economic development. Many big companies have taken a cue from women knowledge to create machines that are now producing African beverages such as Mahewu and opaque beer. All this knowledge was secretly ‘stolen’ from feminine practices and embedded into processing machinery. Unfortunately, women have been left behind as industries that produce these beverages are male-owned although such industries have been inspired by feminine knowledge and practices.  Beer brewing has traditionally been a female domain with men being customers but when it got industrialized it became a male domain.

Feminine perspectives define market requirements and collective consumption patterns in all African countries. They influence decisions around more than 70% of agricultural commodities that are consumed at household level. Feminine knowledge and sensibilities also influence what goes to agricultural markets in terms of quality, size and tastes of vegetables, tubers or fruits.  Rarely do you find men buying tomatoes and onions intelligently. Men may simply buy for price when women could consider many other parameters, including nutrition. Any increase or fall in demand for particular commodities in the market can be traced to feminine decision-making.  That role is key in sustaining markets and influencing consumption patterns.

Women have more knowledge on how commodities are used by the majority of end-users who happen to be women.  They provide advice to end-user in terms of food preparation, storage and additional foods or ingredients that go together with particular commodities. Some of these soft skills have been passed on from generation to generation but need serious documentation in order to make sense of their evolution.  Such skills constitute critical strengths that can contribute to more than 40% of an agribusiness’s viability.

Tapping into the way women understand customer needs will reduce losses along the value chain. The majority of losses are usually caused by a mismatch between standards and expectations of the market, which can be addressed by feminine intuitions better. Unfortunately industrialization has not fully recognized feminine knowledge which cannot be out-sourced. To what extent are modern food processing plants informed by feminine sensibilities? At SME level, we need to see women dominating peanut butter processing and aggregating commodities as well as owning businesses that contribute to improved nutritional status. The business of making soups such as Royco is yet to recognize women’s age-old knowledge on nutritional recipes.

Labour-saving technologies at production level should support women’s crops.  At the moment, we have ploughs and grinding mills for maize which is a male commodity.  High value crops that are a domain of women are often highly perishable but there is no machinery for addressing this perishability besides refrigerators which do not take into account women’s natural food preservation skills.  Peas and other vegetables are some of the highly perishable women’s crops which are challenging to process.

From food fairs to mass products

Instead of conducting a series of food fairs every year, promoters should support the evolution of feminine nutritional knowledge from food fairs to small factories where real products are produced for the majority of consumers. Cooking competitions are a waste of time and energy if they don’t translate into nutritional focused income streams. Unfortunately, a biased financial system which asks for collateral assets that women cannot afford and therefore prevent women from turning their ideas into sustainable nutrition businesses.  An ordinary woman cannot get a $1000 loan to establish a nutrition project as an individual because she doesn’t have collateral or a pay slip. As a result men end up doing that business because they have collateral and pay slips. That is why although women own chickens at household level, they cannot develop their small enterprises into big businesses. Major industrial poultry businesses are owned by men while women become ordinary consumers although they are the main sources of practical knowledge on chickens.

Harnessing the vitality of diversity

Development agencies and policy makers can learn from carefully studying how African agrarian communities balance masculine and feminine roles. That will ensure the current notion of gender does not destroy the vitality of diversity by propagating the false belief that men and women are the same. In many African communities, that false belief has weakened the social fabric. These communities have always been aware that women and men are different from each other right down to the way their brains and bodies function, never mind the obvious anatomical differences.  As a result, people have always been aware that the vibrancy of diversity is found in difference, not sameness

From time immemorial, African communities have learnt to honor diversity and celebrate strengths in everyone, regardless of gender. Respect for diversity is best expressed in honoring and leveraging difference, not in propagating the myth of sameness. Many organizations and African communities have been subjected to forced diversity by development partners, mostly based on imported models of equality.  Yet creating save spaces for sharing and developing different ways of learning and facilitating knowledge exchange is very important. Many of the tools used in facilitation such as field days, focus group discussion and open space are more akin to the feminine approach where, through apparent chaos, you reach fantastic lessons. More conventional lecturing approaches or planning techniques are more masculine with a sharp route to deliver.  To the extent that machines focus on efficiency, output and other easily measurable parameters, they speak to masculine thought patterns. Gender activists can add more value if they advocate for technologies that resonate with feminine knowledge expressions such as reading non-verbal cues and emotional intelligence.  / /

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How can African agricultural economies balance opportunities and risks?

Risk has been part of life since time immemorial. Even before the dawn of modern banking, risk could not be separated from human survival opportunities such as hunting and gathering food. African forests teemed with dangerous animals, rendering hunting a risky adventure. One would spend a whole day or an entire week without catching game meat and that meant loss of time which could have been used in alternative ways such as fishing. Risks and opportunities are always competing just as success and failure compete in business. Today, risks are associated with unforeseen factors and uncertainties such as climate change that are outside human control. However, human beings continue to build their capacity to reduce or mitigate some of the risks through reliable experiences and information.

Balancing risks and opportunities in the agriculture sector

Like any other business, farming is a risky business characterised by the good and the bad. The main reason farmers and other value chain actors continue with agriculture is because the bad is often outweighed by the good.  To the extent that the weather, climate and markets are not always predictable, farmers and traders get into agribusiness fully aware that possibilities of success and failure are unknown. Should they stop investing in agribusiness because of unknown risks?  In most African countries, when farmers and traders decide to get into agriculture as a business, they will have cushioned themselves against bigger portions of the risk. Investing years into learning the tricks of agriculture is a key part of absorbing risk.


Some farmers and traders invest all their pension and remittances in pursuit of agriculture in order to identify wealth creation opportunities. At an individual level, a farmer makes a conscious decision to put all his life savings into the agricultural experience.  On the basis of such investment and experience, the farmer will become confident of approaching a bank for a loan.  Farmers and traders who approach banks for loans will have gained valuable experience and can clearly see opportunities with high probability of success.

Who is competent to assess agricultural risk?

Somebody who has spent more than 10 years in a particular agricultural enterprise or someone with two years office experience in assessing risks through reading proposals that come to his / her desk?  How much business experience, intuitions and nuances can be fully expressed through business proposals which are currently used by risk assessors to either accept or reject a business case? To what extent is the person who assesses risks in a bank an all-rounder in terms of expertise?  There may be more than 30 business proposals from diverse fields like engineering, trading, exporting and agriculture.  How reliable is one template in assessing risk?

The combined experience of those applying for bank loans could be more than 100 years. By rejecting most of these applications on the basis of the same risk assessment blue prints, most African financial institutions are killing a lot of business ideas and potential solutions that could contribute to national economic development.  Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) may not bring better solutions in the form of reliable and sustainable business ideas that are abundant in local people.

Need for dynamic risk assessment toolkits

New hybrid African economies characterised by a growing informal sector alongside a stagnant formal sector, compel financial institutions to continuously revisit their risk assessment toolkits. For instance, while a formal company may produce export receipts, most SMEs may not be able to bring documentary proof of their more than 12 year business enterprise. A trader in the informal sector can save more than 100 customers a day and generate more sales than a formal company but lack documentary proof of all those transactions.  Is that enough basis to consider that trader high risk?

Rather than assess the risk profile of an individual trader, financial institutions should assess and determine the risk profile of an entire industry such as Agriculture, Clothing, Mining, etc. Such a holistic assessment will enable crafting of specific business models that minimize risk for the entire industry or sector. Such assessments presuppose financial institutions have robust data and evidence on the industry or sector. In most African countries such data and evidence is missing. In the agriculture sector, financial institutions should know the performance of agricultural commodities in informal markets which currently absorb more than 70% of diverse commodities, for instance in Zimbabwe.

Through informal markets, financial institutions can be able to reach more smallholder farmers who constitute more than 70% of a potential clientele base. Robust evidence should be part of every risk assessment toolbox from individual value chain actor, sector and policy levels.  It is the market that gives you the rate of investment. Without identifying and analyzing market evidence, it is difficult to see an investment opportunity. The rate of investment comes from looking at price trends, actors, demand & supply trends, standards & specifications, consumption patterns, seasonality and whole market dynamics.

Minimizing fragmented socio-economic perspectives

Due to the current mismatch between formal risk assessment tools and economic realities in the hybrid economy, most African countries have an informal economy that is fully aware of its opportunities and potential on one side and outsiders such as financial institutions who think this sector is too risky on the other side.  As an institution, the informal market has several opportunities waiting to be explored. Risk assessments should be informed by many forms of evidence as opposed to relying on a written proposal. The new risk assessment toolkit should consider the loan applicant’s passion, previous investments and other attributes. Smallholder farmers and traders have tied their livelihoods to their small businesses.  They have no capacity or inclination to externalize funds compared to big corporates.

A new farmer with all resources such as land, water and labour may have challenges trying to access a $50 000 loan from a bank on the basis that he is new to the business.  The risk tends to be connected to the person as opposed to looking at the business with its own advantages such as a ready market, land, water and other resources. Although available resources constitute 80% of the business, financial institutions would let such an opportunity go begging because the individual lacks what is considered collateral.  Risk assessments should consider gaps that need funding rather than the person. More than 70% of the collateral should be about the business and 30% be about capacity building issues.  As part of assessing risk, a critical question that financial institutions should direct at potential clients is: In starting and sustaining your business, what opportunities have you forgone in terms of finance, time, career, etc..?

Limitations of excessive risk-aversion

Excessive risk-aversion by financial institutions is stifling innovation in many African countries. For instance, it prevents youths from participating in the mainstream economy.  Being inexperienced and lacking collateral, ideas from youths are classified as green field and therefore high risk. The green field label is stuck on the idea and the person.  Yet the fact that youths are young is beyond their control.  How are they expected to have gained experience when they were at school from where they have generated innovative ideas? Due to an unresponsive economic and financial environment, the majority of youths end up leaving their countries in desperation.  Some are encouraged to compete for funding under energy-sapping challenge fund competitions that are only accessible to the privileged.  The rest are condemned to poverty although they may have brilliant ideas.

There is a tendency to forget that by pursuing entrepreneurship, many young people including university graduates will have forgone other things they could have done over the past 17 years or so. Some engineers have become traders while some have left employment to become traders.  Isn’t that risk taking of the highest order?  It is important to consider the fact that someone is so convinced about the business to the point of fore-going other opportunities.  Ignoring this fact is the main reason why we end up with copycat businesses which are fueled by what risk assessors have become used to approving as good business ideas merely because many people are doing them.  What is the point of approving the same business models which end up competing and failing to service loans when new models could become opportunities for creating new value if supported?

The risk of mono-cultural business models

When risk assessments from financial institutions ignore new innovation, the economy remains stagnant.  Limiting financial support prevents growth and exploitation of creative businesses. Risk assessment committees should comprise experienced advisors who have actually been in business trenches. Too much risk-aversion puts the whole economy in a comfort zone, thus stalling progress.  Achieving national targets is a question of balancing risks and opportunities. Taking a cue from formal financial institutions, some value chain actors tend to shy away from risk and congest in established value chains such as tobacco, tea, coffee, cocoa, sugar cane and others with deep roots colonial routes. If everyone goes for these few established commodities, who will develop new models around hundreds of African commodities that have enormous potential to present unique selling propositions for African economies?

 In economies that are trying to promote entrepreneurship, risk assessment approaches should be positive and energizing for new entrance.  If somebody applies for a loan and is denied, it lowers his/her spirits and self-esteem.  If that happens to many people, the collective mood of the economy is weakened. Risk assessors should not behave like prophets of doom who undermine innovation and creativity.  People will start thinking that their ideas are not worth pursuing and therefore wait for government donations.

Current financial principles focus on adhering to formal standards and controls which are not fully embedded into agricultural value chains but delegated to risk and compliance departments which have a limited understanding of  the agribusiness context. Assessments are based on analyzing proposals yet, a proposal is only 10% of what an agribusiness is all about. Failure to understand the whole agriculture system is the main reason why financiers are often caught off-guard when failure occurs.  Formal risk management approaches are insufficient for a dynamic ICT-fueled agricultural sector where sources of value and knowledge sharing are expanding every day.

Old ideas are making it difficult for financial institutions to see abundant opportunities in African agriculture. As a result, most opportunities are passing unnoticed due to technical financial obstacles.  Value chain opportunities are either dismissed as too hard or pursued partially depending on the balance between the comfortable familiarity of old financial habits. Without the right ambition levels, financial institutions in developing countries will take decades to become key catalysts in translating abundant resources into economic growth and stability.  Such ambition levels can be measured through appetite for risk.  / /

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Using experimentation to balance short term agricultural gains with long term value creation

Climate change and unstable agricultural markets in developing countries are forcing agricultural actors to rely on constant experimentation. Historical knowledge is no longer enough for decision-making as contexts are always shifting. The level of complexity is such that farmers, traders and financial institutions cannot fully depend on individual meticulous planning. There are so many copycats waiting on their wings to enter the market and disrupt cash flows. While planning remains very important, it is the consolidation of all individual plans that matters most. For instance, long-term national policy planning misses the point if not informed by short and medium-term plans of actors such as farmers.


The main challenge in most developing countries is that agricultural value chain actors such as farmers, processors, financiers and development partners do not share plans and targets. As long as plans are locked in silos, it is impossible to achieve national policy goals.  Farmers tend to depend on short-term plans, mostly seasonal as opposed to a framework laying out three to four year plans. The majority of seasonal plans are designed to meet household needs first with the surplus going to the market. Since information about surplus is barely consolidated, markets are kept guessing and therefore unable to plan.

Dangers and drivers of short-term plans

While short-term plans are good at meeting emergent needs like food security, there is no room for learning from short-term plans. It is insufficient to learn from short-term initiatives that take three to six months. In addition, short-term initiatives fuel premature conclusions, misleading people to believe that there has been success, leading to replication of ineffective short-term outcomes. However, what is driving short-term planning are factors beyond farmers’ control like climate change and lack of a guaranteed market. In a changing climate, farmers cannot plan for five years because things can quickly change. On the other hand, without a guaranteed market, good farmers end up minimizing their surplus to 10 bags of maize when they could actually produce 100 bags if the market is available. The absence of reliable markets compels farmers to make short-term decisions. In addition, short-term planning discourages   consultation between value chain actors, leading to a mismatch between market needs and supplies.

 The situation is the same with short-term loans. There is very little to learn from two to six months loan cycles compared to two to five year or season cycles.  Focusing on short-term and medium-term plans is mostly recycling of the same plans. It is difficult to plan your budget or predict your growth patterns without a strong evidence base in such a scenario. That is why the relationship between banks and farmers end up getting sour because the market suddenly becomes flooded with unexpected commodities. It means a farmer or trader’s three year cash flow is suddenly disrupted as more farmers start getting into the same commodities.  This reinforces a tendency to rely on short-term planning.

The power of experimentation in building adaptation capacity

The fast moving and competitive environment requires value chain actors who can generate and test hundreds of strategic options. Many farmers and traders are already progressing through trial and error which is certainly experimentation, characterized by cycling through many ideas quickly, testing commodity assumptions, getting feedback and building on what is. They are embracing experimentation as a strategy for maximizing their ratio of insights over time and money spent. While experimentation makes sense to farmers and traders, it is not yet natural behavior for other value chain actors such as formal buyers and financial institutions. These prefer the comfort zone of business as usual. Running an experiment is not their first instinct.  Any new opportunity is considered green field, which means it is an unexplored territory and high risk.

While a few formal institutions try to gather data, such data is isolated from the whole agricultural ecosystem and fails to generate sustainable business models. The data does no enable agribusinesses to discern the potential impact of innovative agricultural ideas. On the other hand, experimentation in farming communities and informal markets has the virtue of being both evidence-based and emergent. A well-designed value chain experiment quickly tests the merits of available ideas, generates new and relevant insight into the deep needs and behaviors of farmers, consumers and other actors. It also opens up new avenues that may not be apparent when information is continuously recycled.

Keeping pace keep pace with change

African value chain actors such as informal traders are keeping pace with the current relentless change through experimentation and quick learning. They are always training themselves to tune into deep customer needs and work hard to fulfill those needs. It is through experimentation that high quality information and knowledge is generated. The difference between a tangible commodity like a tomato and knowledge is that you can produce soup from a poor quality tomato and be satisfied with the poor quality of the soup but poor quality information and knowledge will lead to poor decisions which will cause the business to collapse. In most cases, smallholder farmers need high quality information and knowledge in order to compete in the fast-moving market. There is no gain in receiving the same information and knowledge twice. It is becoming very important to equip and empower every value chain actor to test and advance new ideas based on deep customer insight and real-world feedback.

Most African organizations prefer to learn from mistakes made by organizations in a different context like the West. That is why they are failing to produce extraordinary and original work. Getting fluent in failure requires a certain amount of grit and perseverance which our institutions do not want to experience. Unfortunately, the organizational life of all financial institutions is built around avoiding failure and stamping out risk. Unfortunately playing it safe, refusing to venture down blind alleys and sticking to what they know, locks them in the same models such as contract farming.

How can experimentation be taken to the next level?

Policy makers and formal institutions have to stop defending models that are no longer working. Rather than continue emphasizing indiscriminate formalization, they should fully understand local business dynamics. What is the point of a CR14 when every trader ends up doing the same thing or can swiftly change to other commodities?  It’s not about location but swift changes in business. You may know where a trader does business but how does that help a trader to grow if s/he decides to change from specializing in fruits to furniture or community tourism?

All value chain actors in agriculture and rural development should be empowered to build their capacity for experimentation. While some farmers and traders are always experimenting, those lessons are not being codified for everyone to learn. The last time African graduates conduct experiments is at secondary school and few at tertiary education level. Community experimentation is taken for granted although it may not require hi-tech laboratories.  In fact most fields, pastures, local markets and water sources constitute laboratories which could be used to advance community knowledge without waiting for external knowledge. There is no reason why African graduates should not be as open and as curious as possible for as long as possible—to the evidence, feedback and signals coming into their communities. At the moment, most people in African countries go through primary school, secondary school and tertiary education without making a career decision. That is why we end up with graduates looking for any job, for example, engineers teaching at primary school. Besides constituting short-term planning, this education system and mindset translates into lost years in terms of contributing to the economy.  By the time graduates find their true calling or career, they are already about to retire.  / /

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