Gender and social differentiation in the context of agricultural commercialisation in Malawi

Written by Loveness Msofi Mgalamadzi

This blog summarises the findings of APRA Working Paper 58, observing agricultural commercialisation in Malawi and how it differs among various gender and social groups. This study found that female-headed and poorer households are at a disadvantage compared to their male-headed and wealthier counterparts due to differential access to resources and control over decision-making. The following blog provides a deeper look into this reality, and assesses the impact of gender and wealth on several aspects of commercialisation.


Agricultural commercialisation is deemed essential in creating employment opportunities, and improving incomes and livelihoods for rural households. As a result, a shift from subsistence to commercial agriculture has been considered as a positive step towards economic development and deemed one of Malawi’s national priorities, as a way of boosting the country’s economy, as well as the livelihoods of Malawians.

However, agricultural commercialisation is happening to various degrees for different social groups, hence leading to different outcomes with some winning and others losing. This is partly due to the social relationships shared among these different social groups regarding labour and ownership of resources, such as land, inputs, tools and materials used in the process of agricultural commercialisation. This study aimed to identify who agricultural commercialisation really benefits through an analysis of who, among the different gender and wealth categories, benefits from agricultural commercialisation, and what the impacts of agricultural commercialisation are on the livelihoods of those gender and wealth categories.

Study details

Data collected for an Agricultural Policy Research in Africa (APRA) study in Malawi was used to understand the gender and social differences in agricultural commercialisation. The APRA study was conducted in Mchinji and Ntchisi districts in central Malawi, as they produce most of the groundnuts in Malawi, a cash crop that has been key in recent years with concern to smallholder agricultural commercialisation. This study used key informant interviews and focus group discussions with smallholder farmers, farmer group leaders and local leaders, as well as categorised livelihood trajectories, as its data sets. The categorisation of households was based on analysis of quantitative data from household surveys, employing Dorward et al.’s 2009 framework of livelihood trajectories which categorised households into three trajectories including ‘hanging in’, ‘stepping up’ and ‘stepping out’, with an addition of ‘dropping out’ by Mushongah (2009).1

Study findings

Gender, wealth and livelihood trajectories

Here, the aim was to understand to which livelihood trajectories the different gender and wealth categories belong or are likely to belong. We found that female-headed households are more likely to be ‘hanging in’ than male-headed households; while male-headed households are more likely to be ‘stepping up’ than their female-headed counterparts. We also established that poorer households are more likely to be ‘hanging in’ and ‘dropping out’ than richer households; and richer households are more likely to be ‘stepping up’ and ‘stepping out’ than poorer households.

Gender, wealth groups and agricultural commercialisation

The results also show that there are differences in the levels of agricultural commercialisation among the different gender and wealth groups. Male-headed households had a higher Household Commercialisation Index (HCI)2 compared to female-headed households, which means that they are more likely to commercialise than female-headed households. This difference in levels of commercialisation could be explained by the differences in access to productive resources, such as inputs, labour and land. Furthermore, we established that poorer households have reduced access to agricultural inputs, labour (as they usually sell their labour), land (as they often rent out their land), and other productive resources, which is likely to put them in a disadvantaged position as far as commercial farming is concerned.

Gender of decision-maker and household commercialisation

We also examined intra-household decision-making, and access to, control over and ownership of productive resources in relation to agricultural commercialisation. We found that in male-headed households, men are more likely to make decisions regarding production, resources and income. We also found that, despite women owning land in some cases, decisions on what happens on the land are made by men. However, there were different views regarding whether this is a positive or negative thing, with some characterising it as negative because it allows men to make decisions that favour themselves, while others view it is a positive thing because men’s decisions benefit the households, citing reasons of better capabilities among men.

Asset accumulation, gender, wealth and agricultural commercialisation

We established that female-headed and poorer households are likely to earn more income from ganyu (short-term, off-farm labour) compared to male-headed and wealthier households, while the latter are more likely to earn income from crops and livestock sales. This adds to the disadvantaged position of female-headed and poorer households in regards to agricultural commercialisation. The study also found that female-headed and poorer households are less likely to own livestock than their male-headed and wealthier counterparts. In terms of land ownership, male-headed households and richer households are more likely to own land due to their ability to purchase and rent more land than female-headed households and poorer households, who typically must sell or rent out their land due to lack of inputs, including labour.

Food security situation, gender and wealth groups

In the study, we found that male-headed households are more likely to have a higher Food Consumption Score, and Dietary Diversity Score than female-headed households. We also found that poorer households usually run out of food quickly, as they do not harvest enough to last longer periods of time, and their diets are worse than wealthier households. This generally shows that female-headed and poorer households have poor livelihoods compared to male-headed and richer households.


The study was aimed at understanding gender and social differentiation in the context of agricultural commercialisation in rural Malawi. The study focused on differences among gender and wealth categories with regards to livelihood trajectories, levels of agricultural commercialisation, asset accumulation and food security. The study established that male-headed and richer households are in an advantaged position to commercialise as a result of their access to resources and income, and also have better livelihoods and compared to female-headed and poorer households. In male-headed households, it is men who make decisions regarding production and income use, which was viewed by some women as positive and others negative.

1 For details on the description of the livelihood trajectories refer to Mgalamadzi et al. (2021).

2 The proportion of total production marketed (APRA, 2018).