How are women and men differently affected by commercial investments in primary agriculture in Africa?

In one session, we witnessed three contrasting experiences – from Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Zambia – which suggested that, while commercial investments could benefit women, these benefits were far from certain, and whether or not benefits would in fact accrue to women depended on how the investments were designed.

From Mozambique, Roberta Pelizzoli described how land-based investment in primary agriculture has prompted a series of conflicts and controversies, including the exacerbation of socio-economic and gender inequalities, marginalizing more vulnerable groups. Many investment projects have failed or have remained unimplemented. While some positive outcomes exist, in terms of production and infrastructure, Mozambique’s experience has overall been negative. However, research by University of Bologna tried to identify promising approaches under different business models. In the case of the Companhia de Vanduzi, a commercial investment created jobs for permanent and seasonal workers in a packhouse, producing fresh vegetables for the international market, that is fair trade registered, using vegetables from contract farmers as well as two estates. The aim is to increase the contract farmers to 1,500 in the next two years. Those employed permanently are able to plan their lives, and have a professional identity; but the casual labour situation is less favourable. However, permanent workers are unable to complement their livelihood through subsistence production. The solution by the company is to allow workers to go home once they have completed set tasks for the day. Food security has improved as a result. Training for outgrowers has enabled successful subsistence farming combined with employment. Women have more opportunity to influence decision-making over their land – for instance to leave an abusive husband due to independent income streams. There is a 30% minimum women’s participation in outgrowing, forcing associations to make space for women farmers. Preference for employing women in the packhouse (97% women in this workforce) means a crystallisation of gendered roles, but practical benefits for women. Remaining challenges are to entrench a gender equity policy in the company. A system of representation to manage conflicts between workers, outgrowers and the company is used to manage different objectives and asymmetrical relationships. What is also still needed is transparent contracts, and local institutions and support for farmers’ associations to enable better collective action by outgrowers.

Rudo Chingono and Clemence Nhliziyo reported on their research on the Chisumbanje biofuel investment in Zimbabwe. Here, government support of ethanol investments was prompted by economic challenges. The Agricultural and Rural Development Authority (ARDA) and private investors (Green Fuel and Macdom and Rating Investments formed a 20 year agreement. There is now a joint venture between the private companies and government to build 5 ethanol plants to produce 240 million litres of fuel, and placed 8,000 households under an irrigation scheme, on 50,000 hectares of marginal agro-ecological area. Ruzivo Trust has investigated its implementation. Currently 5,000 ha are under sugar cane, employing nearly 5,500 people and 1,750 households are resettled on irrigated plots. Demand-side constraints, as there were obstacles to uptake of blended fuel by petrol stations and by motorists, leading to the company closing in February 2012. This inter-ministerial team led to mandatory blending, changing the ownership structure (public-private partnership) and the ethanol plant reopened in March 2013. The idea of communities joining in shareholding has not been actualized. Some smallholders have been displaced, and another controversy is about resettlement on 0.5 hectare plots – but allocated to women individually, not as families (which is important in the context of polygamy). Securing women’s independent tenure would strengthen their leverage in negotiations.

Jordan Chamberlin showed how there has been a rapid conversion of customary land to leasehold tenure in Zambia, under the 1955 Land Act. The plots titled for agriculture increased by 183% since 1995, now covering about 10% of land held by smallholders. The theory is that titling provides security and collateral, which should promote investment and re-investment – but the evidence is mixed. Rather, elites tend to benefit. Using survey and geospatial data, research by Indaba Agricultural Policy Research Institute found that most people holding title were migrants, urban households, or people with incomes from waged labour or pensions. This is not endogenous accumulation. Title does not lead to increased agricultural incomes or investments. Those women with title are less speculative than male title-holders. In contrast, a study on land rental markets are important ways of redistributing factors of production, which should lead to efficiency as well as equity gains, especially since there are lower barriers to rental market participation. At the same time, there are ‘distress rentals’, and women are more likely to participate as landlords than as tenants. There is a spectrum of arrangements from borrowing, sharecropping to fixed-rental contracts.

The key take-away points from this parallel session were: First and the most important point is that unless you fight against it, commercial ventures will marginalise women. Secondly, participation is not an adequate indicator of gender equity in commercial farming ventures. Thirdly, the conference debated what are the conditions that enable the emergence of strong women’s voices in farmer associations. Required quotas of women outgrowers can help, but only if there is intermediation between companies and outgrowers. Fourthly, there was a debate about gender-specific employment: gender stereotypes limit women to certain types of employment (often marginal) yet can assure wage labour. There is a tension between practical gender needs and strategic gender interests. In one case, traditional authorities prevented the company from hiring women as tractor drivers. Fifthly, we heard that intermediation between the private sector and the outgrowers, in the form of people appointed to work with the association, and this was a determining factor in achieving a positive impact, and resolving sources of conflict. Sixthly, we learnt that titling doesn’t promote gender equity. Supporting land rental markets, alongside support for production and value-chain participation, is a better way to promote gender equality. Seventhly, contract farming can work well, especially when combined with wage labour, but there is a perverse effect of differentiation that can emerge. Local conditions and the terms of contracts are crucial determinants. There’s no blanket one-size-fits-all.