05/20/2012 09:48 am ET Updated Jul 20, 2012

G(irls) 20 Summit: Catching Up With Women Farmers

We step out of the dimly-lit meeting room into the cheerful hubbub outside. We are in a village in western Tanzania, not far from Lake Malawi, among small-scale farmers. Young women and men are crowded around the back of the pick-up truck. Small children run in and out of the crowd, and in circles. Giggles and chatter fill the air.

I ask what's going on. I'm told that the women farmers we just finished interviewing about their coffee crops want to show their gratitude for our visit, so they are giving us gifts for our journey home. Men and boys load the truck with live chickens strung upside down with their legs banded together, two big bags of potatoes, coconuts, beans and bananas. I am a bit alarmed, not the least because the live chickens will not be welcome passengers on my flight!

I also worry. The women are so poor. How can they spare this food? How can I possibly accept these gifts? They have so little themselves. They live in mud huts. Their clothes are clean but threadbare. They just shared with me how they struggle to feed and clothe their children and to make ends meet. But they also told me that if they don't get paid on time for delivering their coffee to the local processor or if the harvest fails because the rains didn't come, they find an alternative. After all, the kids have to eat, school fees must be paid and the roof has to be repaired. It all takes money. So they find other ways to earn an income -- they help harvest a neighbor's crop or set up a small retail business. As they continuously face difficult economic circumstances, they are always innovating and ever resourceful.

Like their sisters all over the developing world, women farmers work hard to grow food for themselves and their families, and for sale. They plant and tend, fertilize and weed, harvest and process -- in short, do all it takes to produce a crop. But they don't get much in return. Their yields are low and, even if some crops are sold, the women may not see any income since men who take the crop to market may not feel obliged to share it.

When international development projects come around to try to change these conditions, they don't always reach out to women farmers. They assume that the women are not the "real" farmers because they don't own land or go to market, or because they have other household responsibilities such as fetching water and caring for children.

However, studies done in many developing countries show that women undertake a variety of farm work along with their household chores. Despite this reality, women are left out of projects that offer new technologies, improved fertilizers or training in practices that could help them produce more. Other studies show that when women have the same access as men to such farming resources, women could produce more, earn more and live better lives.

Fortunately, there is growing support for women farmers like those I met in Tanzania. It comes from the highest levels in global agreements like the G8 L'Aquila Food Security Initiative -- which committed $20 billion over three years for sustainable agriculture development -- and policies such as the United States Agency for International Development's Feed the Future initiative.

Developing country governments are also on board. And on-the-ground organizations are responding with innovative ways to reach out to women: Recognizing that farmer business associations need not be just for men, they are suggesting changes to association by-laws so women can also become members and access the associations' services and training programs.

Meanwhile, farmer field schools are altering their practices. In these schools, men traditionally served as the "lead," or model farmers, who adopted and demonstrated new techniques. Now, both women and men can lead either as partners or in turn. This shift boosts the likelihood that more women farmers realize that training is also meant for them. Finally, women increasingly can sign contracts with agribusiness firms that offer new technologies and resources in return for buying and marketing farmer crops. With contracts, women can get paid directly.

With these and other changes in the way we do business with women farmers, we are beginning to catch up with their creativity and resourcefulness. We must speed up the pace so more of the world's small farmers, men and women alike, can prosper.


Dr. Rekha Mehra is the director of economic development research and programs at the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), a global gender research institute based in Washington, D.C., with offices in New Delhi, India, and Nairobi, Kenya. One of its many focuses is on ensuring that women and girls are central to solutions to end poverty.

Dr. Mehra is a speaker at this year's G(irls)20 Summit, which will be live streamed May 28, 29 & 31 at Take part in the discussion and ask Dr. Rekha Mehra questions using #girls20summit.

Want to join the global campaign to empower women and girls? Send a message to G20 leaders through the What's Your Number? campaign.