Cost of the Gender Gap in Agricultural Productivity in Malawi

Despite the slew of statistics about the importance of women’s participation in agriculture to feed a growing population, particularly in Africa south of the Sahara, details about the agricultural work women do and their specific constraints are not always elaborated on at the country level. We know, for example, that women comprise a large proportion of the agricultural labor force in Africa south of the Sahara, ranging from 30 to 80 percent. We also know that women farmers are consistently found to be less productive than male farmers. The gender gap in agricultural productivity—measured by the value of agricultural produce per unit of cultivated land—ranges from 4 to 25 percent, depending on the country and the crop.

Dr. Haroon Akram Lodhi, Professor of Economics and International Development Studies at Trent University in Ontario, Canada, and Dr. James Mbata, Technical Advisor with the UNDP-UN-Environment “Poverty and Environment Initiative” are delving deeper into the story behind the gender gap in Malawi, in collaboration with UN Women. Drs. Akram-Lodhi and Mbata are part of a team conducting qualitative research as a follow up to the findings of a 2015 cross-country analysis,  The Cost of the Gender Gap in Agricultural Productivity. The report estimated the monetary value of the gender gap in agricultural productivity in Malawi, Tanzania, and Uganda, and went beyond the numbers to establish the drivers of the gap.

In Malawi, female plot operators are 28 percent less productive than their male counterparts. This amounts to an estimated loss of USD 100 million annually. Closing the gender gap in agricultural productivity could lift as many as 238,000 people out of poverty each year in Malawi alone.

Across Malawi, Tanzania, and Uganda, the report found that the three main drivers of the gender gap were: that women’s plots don’t have as much access to male family labor; that men produce higher value crops; and that men have better agricultural implements – both tools and technologies. These three drivers were taken as hypotheses by Akram-Lodhi and his team, as they set out to three districts in Malawi to validate findings from national-level statistics on the ground. In Mzimba North, Salima, and Nsanje, the team found three issues at the heart of the agricultural productivity gap.

Focus group discussions, Malawi (IFPRI/M.Maher)

Focus group discussions revealed that one of the most important drivers of the gender gap is women’s responsibility to provide unpaid care and domestic work – a category which includes fetching firewood and water, caring for children, housework, and meal preparation. Women also report having to engage in petty trading and informal ganyu labor on other people’s farm plots to earn cash for basic things, such as children’s school fees. Similarly burdensome is women’s responsibility to provide unpaid contributing farm labor on land they do not operate for themselves (largely their husbands’ plots), which constrains productivity on their own plots.

Among the most striking findings was the devastating economic consequences of domestic violence. Physical abuse, aside from being emotionally taxing, makes it difficult for women to engage in physical labor and petty trading. Furthermore, husbands frequently steal cash and food from women’s household stores, which disincentivizes investment and savings.

These preliminary findings engaged the seminar audience in a spirited discussion about women’s lived experience and possible solutions. Finding technologies that can help reduce the many burdens on women’s time were discussed as the “low-hanging fruit,” including solar or high-efficiency cook stoves that require less firewood, water harvesting techniques, or agricultural technologies that increase productivity. The discussion focused primarily around the need to address gender-based violence, particularly by ending early child marriages and keeping young girls in school, but also through innovative projects and programs that explicitly confront gender norms in the agricultural sector and beyond.

For more information:
Dr. Haroon Akram-Lodhi's presentation
The Cost of the Gender Gap in Agricultural Productivity

Related resources:
Closing the Gender Gap in Agricultural Development, IFPRI booklet
Counting the hours: The Challenges of Measuring Women’s Time Use, blog
Gender roles in agriculture, blog
IFPRI Gender Tool Box, website
Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index (WEAI), resource center