INTERVIEW / The more years of education a woman has, the more likely it is that her household will use sustainable farming practices – helping to combat food insecurity, poverty and degradation of ecosystems along the way – new research shows.
Many African countries face severe soil degradation due to a deadly combination of erosion, wind and loss of vital mineral nutrients.
But a new study from Gothenburg University in Sweden shows that education of women could be one of the most important driving forces for sustainable agriculture in Africa.
Women play a key role in most aspects of agricultural production of developing countries – including marketing, household food preparation and nutrition, says Hailemariam Teklewold, one of the researchers behind the study.
Teklewold has studied the different factors that make small farmers in Ethiopia adopt cultivation methods that can increase productivity without destroying the environment. These include conservation tillage, bio-diversification (such as crop rotation), improved crop varieties, use of organic fertilisers, and soil and water conservation measures.
The educational level of women in the household turned out to play an important part in how widely these methods are applied.
"Given the importance of women in agriculture, education of women would create investments and provide skills for a critical evaluation of innovations, improve knowledge about methods of production and increasingly advance women’s entrepreneurial ability," Teklewold told EURACTIV in an interview.
Investment in education and microfinance
The Ethiopian researcher said the EU could therefore help local governments invest in rural public education programmes, with a special focus on women.
In a country where markets are missing or incomplete, Teklewold stessed that local institutions can play a critical role in providing farmers with timely information and technical assistance with labour, credit or insurance.
Investment in public insurance and risk-protection mechanisms could also have a positive impact on the adoption of sustainable agricultural practices.
According to Teklewold's research, the resource constraints are important factors which prevent the adoption and dissemination of sustainable agricultural practices for poor farmers.
A solution to the problem could be providing microfinancing to small entrepreneurs and businesses, which lack access to banking services.
"Microfinancing poor women could relax such resource constraints and increase the adoption rate of sustainable agricultural practices by smallholder farmers," Teklewold said.
The fertility of Africa's soil is being depleted at a rate that threatens to undermine the continent's attempts at eradicating hunger with sustainable agricultural development.
Three-quarters of Africa's farmland is plagued by severe soil degradation.
This degradation can partly explain why agricultural productivity in Africa has remained largely stagnant for 40 years. Bad farming practices have damaged soil health on the continent between 1980 and 2004.
Farmers in Africa have traditionally relied on clearing land to grow crops then leaving it fallow to regain some of its fertility. But population pressure now forces farmers to grow crop after crop, 'mining' or depleting the soil of nutrients while giving nothing back.
With a population growth of 3% per year, the number of malnourished people in sub-Saharan Africa has grown from about 88 million in 1970 to more than 200 million by the end of the last century.
- 14-15 Feb.: Africa-EU Joint Task Force meeting in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
- Development and cooperation: EuropeAid