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Feminised labour in African agricultural investments: patriarchal discipline or empowerment?

Although large-scale agricultural investments in Africa include high proportions of women in a variety of ‘business models’, impacts on rural livelihoods are highly differentiated according to several case studies on Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and Madagascar presented at the Multi-stakeholder Conference on Agricultural Investment, Gender and Land in Africa today. The three presentations provided focused on the engagement of local farmers with agro-processing firms through contract-farming arrangements and one plantation arrangement. They are nonetheless joined by their common reliance on a highly feminised labour force.

In a Madagascar project, presented by Andriamanalina Ranaivobarijaona (see photo left)  ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ could be identified as both plantation and outgrower models. ‘Winners’ in the plantation model mainly consisted of households which gained employment without losing land, and women tended to be hired far more frequently than men. ‘Losers’ consisted mainly of households which lost land, but included highly differentiated outcomes, and impacts on household gender relations. Most notably, women had a greater role in not only petty handicraft and community jobs and household labour, but a greater effective command of agricultural and livestock production as men sought jobs at the company or nearby town.

In the contract model, households without contracts included larger farmers engaged in other kinds of production, and small farms without sufficient land or homestead labour. Contracted households included (sufficiently large) small and medium farmers, about one third of which were women. Women usually initiated the contracts, were heavily involved in labour, and had significant control over the income. As a result of the contract, several financial and working-capital constraints were overcome.

In Mozambique, Mozfoods used contract farmers, complemented by estate production, to supply a variety of vegetables to international markets. The company notably attempted initially to rely entirely on outgrowers, but the supply was found to be too unreliable for sustained engagement with the world market. Here Mozfoods considered women, comprising about 30% of farmers, to be the ‘most reliable’ including some larger farmers hiring from without the home.

In Zimbabwe, Freedom Mazwi (see photo right) of African Institute for Agrarian Studies study, presented on contract farmers of key cash crops (sugar, cotton, tobacco, tea and coffee) indicated that although all five industries had growing numbers of contract farmers, such arrangements resulted in diverse impacts on farmer households and their constitutive gender relations. Tobacco farming households were largely found to be reinvesting in agricultural capital and access to social infrastructure (health, school and universities), increasing local employment, and more gender-equitable intra-household negotiations over resource allocations.  Cotton farmers by contrast had faced a vicious cost-price squeeze, witnessing high levels of defaults on debt, the consequent repossession of farmers’ capital, widespread side-selling and a huge drop of employment of largely seasonal female labourers. Nonetheless, across cases, women constituted about 60% of agricultural labour.

Despite their diversity, the common theme cutting across these cases is their reliance on a largely (though not exclusively) female agricultural labour force. These raises the question of interrogating gender relations and female ‘empowerment’ beyond household authority, or numbers of farmers, and situating such authority within a wider context and complex of survival and social reproduction.

Seeing women farmers and labourers as preferable or ‘more reliable’ does not automatically mean they are more ‘empowered’, and may speak more to increasingly harsh conditions of primary agricultural production. For example, it could imply women were more willing to undertake highly devalued agricultural labour, as a result of both patriarchal discipline and/or gendered responsibilities over social reproduction (and its increasingly commoditised reality). Moreover, this cannot be seen apart from shifting constructions of ‘masculine work’, either for personal consumption or ‘bread-winning’ family consumption, seemingly focused increasingly on jobs.

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