How Female Farmers Can Help End Hunger and Malnutrition

By supporting small-scale female farmers, one NGO hopes to diversify diets and combat food insecurity.

(Photo: Solving Hunger in Burkina Faso/Vimeo)

Oct 2, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Samantha Cowan is an associate editor for culture.

Groundswell International has a plan to revolutionize agriculture in West Africa. The U.S.-based NGO focuses on best utilizing and conserving the land’s natural resources, teaching farmers to enrich soil and conserve water.

“Just using rocks, basins in the land, and trees—you’re well on your way to transforming the landscape and increasing soil fertility,” Peter Gubbels, the group’s director of action learning and advocacy in West Africa, told TakePart.

But it’s the way it teaches these things—and the people it teaches them to—that sets Groundswell International apart. Last week, it was named one of eight winners of the Global Resilience Challenge, a public-private initiative by the Rockefeller Foundation, USAID, and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, that works to transform traditional humanitarian assistance. With up to $1 million in prize money, the group will start teaching its agroecological techniques in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Senegal, focusing specifically on women.

In the region’s rural, patriarchal villages, women are highly disadvantaged. They are often unable to own or inherit land. Because they have the most to gain, such disenfranchised women are more likely to adopt new techniques and work together to share and spread them.
“Farming is intimately tied up with ways of living,” said Gubbels. “There’s a lot of social and cultural knowledge that we need to apply to bring about change as it relates to farming.”

Past studies have shown that empowering women benefits entire communities. Although as many as half of the agriculture workers in Africa are women, unequal access to tools, training, and land have resulted in female-run farms that produce between 14 to 30 percent lower yields, according to a 2014 study by the World Bank. The report determined that if female farmers were treated equally in agriculture across Africa, farm yields would increase by up to 30 percent and feed an additional 150 million people each day.

Planting pits in the Sahel region. (Photo: Groundswell International)

Groundswell is encouraging women in the region to plant crops alongside trees instead of chopping the trees down, and teaching them to create rock formations and planting pits—techniques that return nutrients to the soil, collect rainwater, and replenish groundwater. That’s especially crucial in the rocky, barren Sahel region, where Burkina Faso, Mali, and Senegal sit. Located between the Sahara Desert and the Sudanian Savanna, the dryland’s fragile ecosystem has always been difficult to farm, but increasing temperatures and more frequent droughts are leaving farmers increasingly vulnerable.

“Climate change is already affecting disproportionately the small-scale farmers,” said Gubbels, noting that relying on old agriculture methods that are no longer viable under harsh conditions has caused the region’s hunger and poverty rates to skyrocket. More than 20 million people in the Sahel region are food insecure, and 5.6 million children face chronic malnutrition, according to the United Nations’ September figures. And it’s only going to get worse: A report from Agriculture for Impact found that hunger and malnutrition could increase 20 percent by 2050 as a result of climate change.

While Gubbels and his team are working to increase crop yields, they can simultaneously reduce malnutrition. They’ll teach the communities about the importance of diet diversification by helping women set up home gardens, introducing legume crops, and fostering small-scale poultry farming for eggs and meat. Malnutrition contributes to 35 percent of child deaths in West Africa, according to UNICEF. As many as 40 percent of children in West Africa suffer from chronic malnutrition, which means they don’t ingest the proper nutrients needed to grow over a long period of time, resulting in permanent physical and mental damage.

“They have to diversify their cropping and not just grow millet, millet, millet,” said Gubbels. “Even if you eat your fill every day of sorghum or millet—it’s not having all the nutrients that you need that you get from vegetables.”

“Everybody needs to see their stake in resilience,” said Gubbels, adding that Groundswell has to prove to community members that they can all benefit from employing new farming methods, empowering women, and diversifying crops. The group will spend the next two years working in its three small areas and is hopeful its approach will have a ripple effect as both men and women share their success farmer-to-farmer.

Increasing crop yields in a climate-stressed region while empowering women and improving nutrition—tall orders all around, but easier and perhaps more effective when tied together.