Joan Holmes, A 21st Century Green Revolution, Yara Prize Ceremony

September 2, 2006

Yara’s Commitment to Africa

I am very honored to be with you at this second annual award ceremony of the Yara Prize for a Green Revolution in Africa.

Yara is the first private sector organization to respond to the Secretary-General’s call for a Green Revolution.[1]

As we know, the intention behind the Green Revolution is to contribute to achieving the first Millennium Development Goal—eradicating hunger and extreme poverty—in Africa.

The First Green Revolution

The first Green Revolution in Asia and Latin America was a technical and scientific breakthrough and one of the most important accomplishments of the 20th century. Had this Green Revolution not occurred, there would be an additional one billion hungry people today.[2]

What was also revealed by the first Green Revolution was that while greater food production is necessary, it is not sufficient to end hunger.

For an example, we only need to look at India. In India, agricultural production skyrocketed because of the Green Revolution. Today, India has more than 38 million tons of food in storage.[3] Yet, 47% of the children are malnourished.[4]

The Asian Enigma

UNICEF commissioned a landmark study to answer the question: why are the rates of malnutrition so high in South Asia?

They concluded—and I quote—“The exceptionally high rates of malnutrition in South Asia are rooted deep in the soil of inequality between men and women.”[5]

And—ladies and gentlemen—it is the same situation in Africa.

Secretary-General Kofi Annan recognized this phenomenon and is on record saying: “A Green Revolution in Africa will happen only if it is also a gender revolution.”[6]

The African Woman Food Farmer

Today, in 2006, it is incumbent on us to have a Green Revolution in Africa that not only replenishes the continent’s soils—an important resource for Africa—but also replenishes Africa’s greatest resource: the African woman food farmer.

African women are the backbone of food production on the continent. It is their strength, ingenuity and back-breaking, hard work that produces 80% of Africa’s food.[7]

They work a 16-hour day—every day—and use virtually the same rudimentary tools their grandmothers’ grandmothers used a hundred years ago.

Africa’s rural women do:

  • 90% of the work to process Africa’s food
  • 80% of the work to transport and store Africa’s food
  • 60% of the work to market Africa’s food, [8] and

Women and girls provide more than 90% of the fuel-wood and water the family needs to survive.[9]

The African woman is virtually, single-handedly responsible for her family’s health, nutrition, sanitation, education and increasingly, family income. And somehow she finds the time to care for the sick and dying—a burden that has become evermore crushing with the HIV/AIDS crisis.

It is a level of existence of unrelenting drudgery; back-breaking work; mind-numbing, unending tasks; and, absolutely no voice in decisions that affect her life.

There’s no relief. No pause. It just continues—day after day after day.

It starts in her childhood and continues right up until her early death.

It’s unconscionable that at the beginning of the third millennium, this profound violation of human rights continues—and it continues with no outcry, no outrage, no condemnation from the world community.

Women Food Farmers—Unrecognized and Unsupported

What makes this even more tragic is the lack of investment in the rural women of Africa. Although women in Africa produce 80% of the food, they:

  • own 1% of the land
  • receive 7% of the agricultural extension services, and
  • receive less than 10% of the credit given to small-scale farmers. [10]

How can we expect any farmer—in any country of the world—to increase food production under these circumstances?

Given the inhumane constraints under which African women work, their lack of support and the archaic tools they use, their agricultural production is truly heroic.

Instead of the African woman being recognized for meeting the basic needs of an entire continent, she has the lowest socio-economic status in all of Africa.

When policies are formulated, when programs are developed, when budgets are drawn, and when decisions are made about her work and her life, she is simply not present.

She is unnoticed.

  • Unappreciated.
  • Unacknowledged.
  • Unsupported.
  • The truth is: She and her work are invisible.

In July 2004, I attended a high-level seminar in Ethiopia on achieving the first Millennium Development Goal. Among the hundreds of people there, less than 10% were women—and of these, very few were African.

We heard from UN officials, presidents of countries, the donor community, agricultural experts and economists, but not once—in our entire day’s meeting—not once, did we hear from the African woman food farmer or one of her representatives.

In 1980, in the Lagos Plan of Action, far-sighted African leaders called for the full integration of women into the development process. They warned—development that ignores women will fail—and it has.

Despite the billions and billions of dollars that have poured into Africa, the majority of Africans are worse off today than they were at the beginning of independence more than 40 years ago.

  • 32% of Sub-Saharan Africans are undernourished[11]
  • More than 50% lack food security[12]
  • 44% live on less than $1 a day[13]
  • 75% on less than $2 a day.[14]

Africa Must Invest in Women Food Farmers

If Africa is to end hunger…

If Africa is to provide food security for its people…

If there is truly going to be a successful Green Revolution, then Africa needs to invest in the people who are doing the work that needs to be done.

Ladies and gentlemen, you don’t have to be an expert to figure out that Africa needs to invest in its food farmers even though they are women.

We Know What Needs to be Done

Just as we know what nutrients we need to make soil fertile, we know what inputs the African food farmer needs to increase her productivity and improve her life.

If Africa would provide even the most basic, affordable inputs to women farmers, agricultural productivity would transform.

Tools and Technology

I’ve been to 17 countries in sub-Saharan Africa and the story is always the same – if you are in rural Africa you see woman after woman after woman in the fields with a child tied to her back—most likely pregnant, bent over a short-handled hoe—bent over just like her grandmother’s grandmother so long ago.

In fact, the use of rudimentary tools still accounts for more than 75% of Africa’s food production.[15]

Farm technology is never tailored to a woman’s needs and it most often impairs her health and limits her productivity.

One of the most arduous and time-consuming tasks for the African woman is the fetching of water, which can involve walking hours a day, carrying large jugs on her head. A simple hand or treadle pump in each village would eliminate this unbelievable drudgery.

The same burden is put on a woman when she again walks miles to gather firewood. She carries heavy loads—on her head—sometimes as much as 35 kilograms.[16] Again, using a simple donkey-driven cart could significantly reduce this burden.

Surveys of rural transport patterns show that women contribute at least two-thirds of Africa’s total rural transport—usually, by carrying it on their heads.[17]

Inputs and Credit

Women not only lack appropriate technology, they also lack agricultural inputs like fertilizer and improved seeds.

Yet, studies show that when women farmers have access to these inputs, they are far more productive than men. If women’s access to agricultural inputs was on a par with men’s, total agricultural output would increase significantly.[18]

Women also lack access to credit to improve their farms. Banks and moneylenders are unwilling to lend to women, despite evidence that women have the highest rates of repayment on their loans. When women do receive credit from nongovernmental organizations, they improve their farms and they repay their loans.[19]


But, the most powerful intervention of all—education. One World Bank study found that increasing women’s primary schooling could boost agricultural output by more than 20%.[20] In Kenya, where the amount of education women receive is extremely low, a year of primary education provided to all women farmers would boost the maize production by 24%.[21]

Critical Actions to Take

If Africa is going to develop, Africa must invest in its food farmers. There’s no way around it.

Credit must be given to women. Extension services and appropriate technologies must be provided. Women farmers must have voice in the decisions that affect their lives and be empowered with basic education and health care.

Around the world, study after study shows that when women are empowered—that is, when the shackles and constraints are removed from their lives—there is:

  • increased agricultural production[22]
  • lower birth rates[23]
  • lower childhood malnutrition[24]
  • lower child mortality[25]
  • more children in school, including girls, and[26]
  • all of society benefits.[27]

The Millennium Project’s Hunger Task Force concluded that “the developing world must move beyond rhetoric to put gender equality into practice if the hunger Goal, and all the other Goals, are to be met.”[28]

In spite of this, we in the West, continue to pour billions and billions of dollars into Africa and almost none of it in support of its most productive resource—rural women.

The amount of bilateral aid that is specifically targeted to empower women and girls is 0.1%.[29] Multilateral institutions don’t even have it as a line-item in their budgets.[30]

In this way, we in the West, are complicit in the subjugation, marginalization and disempowerment of African women.

In this way, we in the West, are complicit in the persistence of hunger and abject poverty.

The challenge in front of us as an international community is clear—we need to find a way to have aid directly empower the rural women of Africa.

Unless and until we do, hunger and poverty will persist.

Unless and until we do, our hopes and dreams for Africa will never be realized.

[1] Yara Press Release, 2005/05/03.

[2] W. Dar, “Speech Delivered on the Occasion of the Regional World Food Day Observance at the Regional Office of the Food and Agriculture Organization, 16 October 2001, Bangkok, Thailand,” Towards a Grey to Green Revolution, International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics, January-December 2001.

[3] Food Corporation of India, Government of India, 2005-2006 figures.

[4] World Development Indicators, World Bank.

[5] V. Ramalingaswami, U. Jonsson, J. Rohde, Commentary: The Asian Enigma, UNICEF, 1996.

[6] Secretary-General Kofi Annan address to the Africa-France Summit, 20 February 2003.

[7] P. Sanchez, M.S. Swaminathan, P. Dobie, N. Yuksel, et al, Halving Hunger: It Can Be Done, UN Millennium Project Hunger Task Force Report, Earthscan, 2005.

[8] World Bank, Women in Development: Issues for Economic and Sector Analysis, Policy Planning and Research Working Paper 269, World Bank, 1989.

[9] Women and Sustainable Food Security, Sustainable Development Department, FAO.

[10] P. Sanchez, M.S. Swaminathan, P. Dobie, N. Yuksel, et al, Halving Hunger: It Can Be Done, UN Millennium Project Hunger Task Force Report, Earthscan, 2005.

[11] World Development Indicators, World Bank.

[12] With more than 50% of Africans living below the poverty line, at least this many people are food insecure.

[13] World Development Indicators, World Bank.

[14] World Development Indicators, World Bank.

[15] Statement by William Foege, The Carter Center’s Fellow for Health Policy, Emory Report, May 1995.

[16] K. Cleaver and G. Schreiber, Reversing the Spiral: The Population, Agriculture, and Environment Nexus in Sub-Saharan Africa, The World Bank, 1994.

[17] I. Barwell, Transport and the Village: Findings from African Village-Level Travel and Transport Surveys and Related Studies, World Bank Discussion Paper No. 344.

[18] K. Saito et al, Raising the Productivity of Women Farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa, World Bank Discussion Papers No. 230, The World Bank, 1994.

[19] Data from The Hunger Project’s microfinance initiative for women—the African Woman Food Farmer Initiative—shows typical loan repayment rates as 98%.

[20] The State of Food Insecurity in the World, FAO, 2002.

[21] Women: The Key to Food Security, IFPRI, June 2000.

[22] K. Saito et al, Raising the Productivity of Women Farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa, World Bank Discussion Papers No. 230, The World Bank, 1994.

[23] A. Sen, Global Doubts, Harvard University Commencement Day Address, 8 June 2000.

[24] L. Smith and L. Haddad, Explaining Child Malnutrition in Developing Countries, IFPRI, 2000.

[25] World Bank Findings, Number 6, Africa Region, World Bank, November 1993.

[26] State of World Population: People, Poverty and Possibilities, UNFPA, 2002.

[27] State of the World’s Children, UNICEF, 2004.

[28] P. Sanchez, M.S. Swaminathan, P. Dobie, N. Yuksel, et al, Halving Hunger: It Can Be Done, UN Millennium Project Hunger Task Force Report, Earthscan, 2005.

[29] Aid Activities in Support of Gender Equality1999-2003, OECD, Volume 2005-6.

[30]Private Communication, Jessica Hughes, Gender Unit, World Bank, 25 April 2006.