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Category: Environment, International

Making Women Farmers "Visible" As They Feed Nations

| August 14, 2008

Meena Bilgi always knows where to start. A half hour after her request the village leader of Boripitha, an underdeveloped community of 1,300 in the Indian state of Gujarat, had summoned 15 to 18 men and boys.

Gathering around her small figure in the square, they complained that the village women had little work to do and so didn’tneed time-saving devices like flour mills or pressure cookers or biogas. Bilgi, a gender specialist and natural resources consultant, asked how long they thought it took women to perform their daily tasks. The men discussed each chore and tallied the minutes and hours, counting with leaves in boxes drawn in the dust to represent each task. Sweeping, collecting water and fuel wood, cutting fodder for animals and taking them to graze, pounding, husking, grinding, cooking and serving food, and more.

When the total was in, as Bilgi described it in a report to a rural development NGO, one of the men, Margabhai, shot out: “You mean to say that women work nineteen hours a day?”

Bilgi: “I am not saying anything, you gave this information.”

Margabhai: “How can that be? If women worked for nineteen hours, they would not be able to get up in the morning, they would become ill.”

They began to redo the tally, but all they could trim off was one hour.

Bilgi maintains a comfortable presence in her work, whether with politicians, village patriarchs, or impoverished farmers. This was the first time the Boripitha men seemed to realize how much work their wives, mothers, sisters and daughters do—with little recognition, let alone compensation. While some defended their farm work as much harder, they still conceded the dangers to women, for example from scorpions and snakes.

The conversation continued, gradually sensitizing men to women’s burdens as well as their capabilities, strengths and leadership. This scenario has been repeated in village after village. Bilgi says the men finally come to admit that women contribute to community and to agricultural development.

In another district on Bilgi’s watch, when timesaving biogas replaced wood for cooking, the women were jubilant. It meant more than time saved. They had learned that a single day of preparing meals with a chullha or wood-burning stove is like smoking 400 cigarettes. “It has added twenty years to my life,” one woman exclaimed about her new cooking aid.

Bilgi brims with projects and ideas, always willing to share what she has learned. When I met her in New York City, she was eager to talk about the women farmers’ fairs she helped organize throughout Gujarat. They attracted thousands of participants over several days of seminars on new methods and technologies. Very poor women could have their soil tested, learning how to improve it and what would grow best. To follow up, women’s self-help groups formed. Men who once dominated agriculture centers now had to make room for female colleagues. In Bilgi’s view, the fairs helped improve the level of subsistence farming of many of the very poor attendees and also “helped them rise to another level out of poverty and into independence with access to informal markets.” Yes, this is a model for developing countries, she said, adding, “such fairs are techniques to ensure that women are recognized as farmers and are visible.”

Also in New York talking about rural development on another continent was Linda Olga Nghatsane, a farmer herself but no ordinary one. At 50, the serious and soft-spoken South African is a leader and an inspiration to others in her field.

She and her husband Johnson Nghatsane bought an overgrown 10 hectares (24.5 acres) in the Crocodile River Mountain conservancy near Nelspruit, the capital of Mpumalanga Province, 170 km (106 miles) east of Johannesburg. There wasn’t a single building, not even a road running through the property, let alone electricity or water. After backbreaking labor and the purchase of 1,000 chickens, they opened their poultry farm, De Hoop, in 2004. Two years later Nghatsane became South African Woman Farmer of the Year, and in 2007, the Shoprite Checkers/SABC2 Woman of the Year (a supermarket chain and the South Africa Broadcasting Corporation).

“The first time around,” Nghatsane said of her experience managing a poultry farm in the 1990s, “it was just a way to earn a living. This time I had a challenge: chickens, vegetables and public health.”  Today she has 36,000 broilers and will round it out to 40,000 by year’s end.

She had left the management job to move with her husband, an animal husbandry specialist, to Neighboring Mozambique, where she worked for an aid organization, putting her nursing and public health experience into play on a rural water project. Distressed by what she saw—poverty, malnutrition, large numbers of children dying of diarrhea and malaria—she secured a four-year grant from an American aid agency for a “child survival project.” Her program trained volunteers to teach women about healthy and balanced diets from locally grown foods for themselves and their babies.. The program was a big success as vulnerable women and their children grew healthier, less prone to life threatening diseases. She has been asked to replicate her program in more than a dozen other African countries, including her own.

With Farm De Hoop it was time, Nghatsane felt, to face the challenge of the poor rural women she had worked with. As she described it, they would say to her,  “‘you’re telling us a lot of things, but we’re poor. We don’t have money to buy food or eat a balanced meal.’ And when I encouraged them to eat locally available foods they would say, ‘yes, in the rainy season we have plenty, but in winter we don’t have enough.’”

To allow them to practice her teaching, she created a model, planting spinach in small porous plastic bags, inserting bottles filled with water that would slowly be absorbed into the composted soil. When the women tasted the results they wanted to learn how to grow it themselves. “And with the chickens”, Nghatsane proudly added, “I developed a strategy for an informal market.”

Today women in three dozen far-flung villages sell her broilers from their homes or village stalls. She gives them feed and 30 to 100 or more chickens every Friday and by Monday they give her an accounting. The women hawkers make money, stay with their children, grow fresh spinach and have healthy hens to pluck for their own pots.

Nghatsane would like women farmers to be able to reach beyond the informal markets to commercial and export sectors. She struggles to enlarge her own operation while still working with children and consulting on public health issues. “When I have opportunities, I do take them,” she said. Yet preaching the gospel of agriculture is her passion. “Agriculture is a given platform for women,” she said. “And so that’s why it’s very close to my heart to mobilize women to discover their talent for farming and the potential that is there for them. After all we are feeding families. We can just as well feed the nation.”