Africa is Hungry: How Women Can Make a Difference

Wednesday, 4 November, 2009 - 08:34

“Hunger begins with inequality - between men and women, and between rich and poor. It grows because of perverse policies that treat food purely as a commodity, not a right. It is because of these policies that most developing countries no longer grow enough to feed themselves, and that their farmers are among the hungriest and poorest people in the world. Meanwhile, the rich world battles growing obesity”

While some regions around the world battle with increasing obesity, much of Africa continues to experience severe food shortages, as millions of African people suffer daily from hunger. The reality of food shortages in Africa is well-known. So well known, in fact, that the average middle-class fast food eating person is generally unable to feel anything but blasé about it. There are many others, however, who do try to help, and countless organisations and programmes working to provide food for the hungry.

Against the backdrop of October’s International Day for Rural Women (15 October) and World Food Day (16 October), this month’s newsletter argues that the continuous provision of food to hungry Africans needs to be systematically replaced by initiatives that will empower them to produce (and keep producing) their own food, even in the face of climate change, the global economic slowdown and conflict. Women, who form the heart of every community, represent the perfect gateway for such empowering initiatives to reach and transform communities. Simply providing food support, instead of enabling food production, creates and encourages dependency on food provision and feeds the image of hungry Africans as hopeless victims in need of care and support. Utilising and empowering women farmers by routinely placing them at the centre of food production initiatives could have long term effects that will ripple outwards from the women to their families, communities and society at large.

World hunger

Dr Akinwumi Adesina, Vice-President of Policy and Partnerships at the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, believes that Africans cannot be fully free “until we end the chronic hunger that afflicts nearly 220 million Africans every day” (‘20 Million People At Risk of Famine’ The New Vision, 22 October 2009). International aid agency, ActionAid, released a report on 16 October entitled, ‘Who's really fighting hunger’, which questions why one billion people across the globe suffer from hunger. “Over one billion people - a sixth of humanity - don't have enough to eat. Almost a third of the world's children are growing up malnourished. This is perhaps one of the most shameful achievements of recent history, since there is no good reason for anyone to go hungry in today's world,” the organisation says.

ActionAid’s report pinpoints the major cause of world hunger: “Hunger begins with inequality - between men and women, and between rich and poor. It grows because of perverse policies that treat food purely as a commodity, not a right. It is because of these policies that most developing countries no longer grow enough to feed themselves, and that their farmers are among the hungriest and poorest people in the world. Meanwhile, the rich world battles growing obesity.”

Women at the heart of communities

Women are a good starting point for food production empowerment initiatives. Many women put their families ahead of themselves, including when it comes to eating. They will therefore let their children eat the available food, and/or will be expected to eat last and thus least. Inequalities between people affect their access to food. Inequalities between men and women, whether a product of economics, ‘culture’ or both, certainly mean that women work hardest to produce food and obtain water, yet benefit from their work least because they have less power over the resources they produce, and ultimately take responsibility for.

The crux of the matter is then that because women are considered caregivers, they should be the ones to be empowered to perform their roles even better. Women can be caregivers and responsible decision-makers at the same time. Of course men are also caregivers, but in many cases they also have beneficial defined property rights and access to credit, which makes it much easier for them to produce food than it is for women in many places on the African content.

Sustainable solutions to food shortages

Oxfam also released a report in October, titled ‘Band Aids and Beyond’, which details the need for sustainable solutions to food production challenges, such as recurring droughts, by using approaches that are more cost-effective, sustainable and better suited to the population (IRIN News, ‘Drought Need Not Mean Hunger And Destitution’, 22 October 2009). Referring specifically to Ethiopia, the report argues that band aid-like temporary solutions to food crises are reactionary and a waste of resources because they do not offer long-term sustainable solutions to recurring food shortages. “We cannot make the rains come, but there is much more that we can do to break the cycle of drought-driven disaster in Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa. Food aid offers temporary relief and has kept people alive in countless situations, but does not tackle the underlying causes that continue to make people vulnerable to disaster year after year,” said Penny Lawrence, Oxfam's International Director.

“Donors need to shift their approach, and help to give communities the tools to tackle disasters before they strike… Drought does not need to mean hunger and destitution. If communities have irrigation for crops, grain stores and wells to harvest rains then they can survive despite what the elements throw at them,” Lawrence added. The report calls on donors to focus on programmes that manage the risk of disaster before it strikes. Such strategies include the building and maintenance of wells that harvest rain during the wet seasons, early warning systems, creating strategically positioned stockpiles of food, medicine and other items, and irrigation programmes.

Dr Adesina notes that an African policy revolution is necessary to lead Africa to full independence - in other words, independence from food imports and food aid. Africa needs home-grown policies that correspond to its priorities, Adesina says. African agriculture needs massive investments, so that the whole infrastructure that facilitates food production is able to support the results of a policy revolution.

Women farmers need first and foremost secure land and property rights. This was one of the important points raised by many during their celebrations of the International Day for Rural Women in October. Food Rights Policy Advisor for Action Aid, Ghana, Nii Naaku Mensah, noted that fair, friendly and favourable policies for women farmers need to be formulated and implemented as soon as possible(GNA, ‘Women still need favourable policies’, 20 October 2009). He stated that in spite of the vital role that women play in society, they lack the power to secure land rights and access to vital services such as credit, extension services, technical input, training and education. Policy changes could thus contribute tremendously to the training and financial support of women farmers and the infrastructure they need to produce food for their communities.

Focus on women to end hunger

Women farmers in Africa are certainly a big part of the solution to the famine that plagues the continent. They are the ones who have access to their communities and could easily distribute produce to local markets, thus minimising transport costs. These women need to be actively approached, however, before they will be able to start producing more food on a regular basis. Policy makers need to keep in mind that all processes of production and economy have gendered dimensions, and that women have the potential to transform their communities through farming initiatives. Of course, the actual design and implementation of funding and interventions are much more complicated than what can be elaborated on here, but this month’s newsletter represents the inclination, the awareness and hopefully something that will grow to a global desire to end world hunger and empowering women at the same time.

Charlotte Sutherland is Research Manager: Gender Issues in Africa at Consultancy Africa Intelligence ( The November edition of the Gender Issues in Africa Newsletter is republished here with permission from Consultancy Africa Intelligence (CAI), a South African-based research and strategy firm with a focus on social, health, political, and economic happenings in Africa. For more information see or Alternatively, visit to take advantage of CAI’s free, no obligation, one-month trial to the company’s Standard Report Series.

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