Closing the Gender Gap in Tanzania

Plant With Purpose trains entrepreneurial women farmers

by Heather Tomlinson

Poking around my small backyard vegetable garden, I tire quickly, and the fruits of my work are scanty. Yet on a recent trip to Tanzania on the East Coast of Africa, I met many women who farm for a living, wielding fewer tools than even I possess as an amateur gardener. They dig their one- or two-acre plots from dawn until afternoon, producing food for their large families and even take in a small income. They are stronger than I will ever be, both physically and mentally. Theirs is not an easy life.

I travelled to Tanzania to visit Plant With Purpose, a Christian development agency that aims to regenerate the environment in order to improve the lives of people living in rural poverty, most of whom are smallholder farmers. In Tanzania it is the women who bear the brunt of this work.

In the US, about 14 percent of farms are managed by women. But in the developing world, 43 percent of the agricultural labor force is female. So are an estimated two-thirds of the world's 600 million poor livestock keepers, according to Farming First, a coalition that investigates farming and development issues. Of women who are 'economically active,' farming is the main livelihood for 79 percent.

The numbers are even higher in Tanzania, home to the famous Mount Kilimanjaro. Here, smallholder farmers make up a majority of the population, providing a small income and most of the food for many of the poorest families. And 25 percent of rural households are actually headed by women. Approximately 72 percent per cent of the 6,234 farmers that Plant With Purpose (PWP) works with in Tanzania are women.

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In her demonstration plot, Ediltruda Massawe, an environmental and agriculture coordinator for PWP, teaches farmers sustainable agriculture and micro-credit techniques.

"Most farmers are women here," says Ediltruda Massawe, an environmental and agriculture coordinator for PWP who lives in the Malindi district. She trains local farmers in sustainable agriculture and how to save and lend money through a micro-credit scheme (VSLA). She says that men are often either trying to run a business to raise more income or may have absconded due to alcohol issues or other matters. The culture sees a woman's role as looking after the children, including growing the family's food.

This difference in gender roles gives women a degree of freedom and autonomy as well as the burden of responsibility. "In many families now, men are drinking and enjoying themselves," said one local in Tanzania. "The woman holds the purse strings and has to support the family."

There is good evidence from developmental research that working with women has wider benefits for the community; for example, when women have more income, their children benefit. According to the report Women in Agriculture: Closing the Gender Gap for Development, from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, "When women have more influence over economic decisions, their families allocate more income to food, health, education, children's clothing and children's nutrition."

PWP's work with women addresses an injustice. Research suggests that in general, female farmers in the developing world receive less training and resources than their male counterparts and therefore produce lower yields. For this reason, much development work has frequently targeted women. But this aid often introduces Western ideas such as the use of artificial fertilizer and insecticides, which are expensive and can contribute to the degradation of the local soil. In addition, these chemicals are not only costly but also have unwanted health effects: two-thirds of rural farmers who use artificial pesticides and fertilizers report feeling unwell after using them.

Because women farmers have less access to such resources, they are less likely to use modern technologies such as GMO foods, artificial fertilizers, and machinery, according to the FAO report. So what can be done to boost their crop yield?

PWP teaches how to boost agricultural yield by going back to natural methods of organic and sustainable agriculture and by planting trees. These sustainable techniques not only increase yield but also reverse the disastrous effects of deforestation and soil erosion. Instead of planting row upon row of the same crop, the farmers they work with plant a greater variety of crop species and thus eat more healthily. And they plant almost four times as many trees as neighboring farms, with more native tree species, leading to better soil conservation. These techniques lead to increased income, a healthier environment, and better lives for the farmers.

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Grace, pictured with Princess, has four children to support and says she has benefited from organic agriculture and new farming techniques.

The entrepreneurial spirit of the women is vital to change. Richard Mhina, who runs PWP in Tanzania, says that it's the women who are the early adaptors and innovators in their society, but as is always true, entrepreneurs face risks.

"It is risky, because they are doing something new," says Corbyn Small, a regional representative of PWP. "That is a big risk for a farmer living on the margins."

Beginning to save money in a micro-credit group, growing a wider variety of produce, buying tree seeds, and using natural methods to fertilize crops and keep pests away—these are all new and potentially risky initiatives. But the benefits are clear, and when people in the community start to notice, everyone wants to learn how they too can grow more crops and earn more income.

Grace has four children and speaks at her local VSLA meeting about how the methods she learned from PWP have changed her life: "Organic farming has made it easier to sell produce and get more income," she says. "So this increases our living at home. The various [restorative] agricultural practices, [such as] contouring and composting increase production, and so increase what we can sell. Life was difficult before—our houses had no roofs. It is better now than it was before."

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Rebecca is a farmer who has been able to send her children to school, grow more crops, earn more income, and plant many more trees since working with Plant With Purpose.

Another farmer, Rebecca, has worked with PWP since 2008. She says that the work has allowed her to send her five children to school. She has learned to grow tree seedlings and now sells them to local farmers. Her vegetable beds not only feed her family but also provide excess that she can sell. She has saved about $300 so far, and the interest she earns is enough for materials to build her new home, at the rate of one new wall per year, which she built with her own hands.

These women have been given tools to help improve their lives, but it is their hard work, physical strength, and indomitable willingness to innovate that have produced the results. This is the kind of farming that will preserve the lush, green landscapes of Tanzania for the future, growing the people's hopes along with it.

Heather Tomlinson is a freelance journalist based in the UK. She has written for The Guardian and Christianity magazine among other publications, and she writes about Jesus and simple living at her blog, Heather's Mag.

Related reading:

"Empowering Women in Agriculture to Help Eradicate Hunger" by Jo Anne Lyon

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