Innovative approaches to including gender within agricultural mechanization
“If a mechanized tool is introduced, men will use it and women will be made to do a more laborious task.” Female farmer, Koumbia, Burkina Faso.
This concern was not unique to the farmer interviewed, and was voiced by multiple men and women over the course of my two week trip during the planting season in eastern Burkina Faso. According to the FAO, in Burkina Faso 95 percent of women in rural areas practice subsistence farming using very basic techniques and non-mechanized instruments. Globally, women represent on average 43 percent of the agricultural labor force in developing countries. Although mechanization can help reduce the time, labor, and drudgery of agricultural production and improve quality of life, female farmers face multiple barriers in adopting mechanization. Barriers to adoption range from technology design to access to credit, land, and information in order to purchase, access, or use the technology. Furthermore, women face intra-household barriers and, in many countries, negative socio-cultural perceptions associated with women using agricultural machinery. While closing the gender gap in women’s access to agricultural technology is considered a key strategy for rural women’s economic empowerment, there is a real challenge in determining how a program can better include women in agricultural mechanization from the get-go.
The Appropriate Scale Mechanization Consortium (ASMC) attempted to tackle this challenge through the development of a ‘lean’ gender technology assessment. Adapted from the INGENAES Technology Assessment toolkit and the Gender Toolkit for Small Scale Irrigation Technologies, the assessment incorporates principles of Human Centered Design to identify practical recommendations that can be easily and quickly incorporated into program activities. Six early-stage technologies promoted by ASMC in Burkina Faso, Cambodia, Bangladesh, and Ethiopia were assessed for gendered barriers and enablers at various stages of technology uptake: design (user’s needs), dissemination (learning), adoption (access) and continued use (intra-household dynamics). Simple approaches were then identified to reach, benefit or empower women through the technologies. Below are three examples of innovative approaches to including gender in agricultural mechanization.
Fee-for-service arrangements have made the mechanization needed to implement Conservation Agriculture (CA) more accessible to smallholder farmers who no longer need to purchase capital-intensive machinery. In Cambodia, ASMC worked with different stakeholders to promote adoption of CA by building the CA service provision business. However, in the project intervention area women were traditionally not engaged in farm production decisions, which affected their participation in CA trainings. Through the assessment, it was identified that although less visible, women are playing an important role in the household’s adoption of mechanization technology. Women were household financial managers who paid for technologies, contracted and negotiated with service providers, and paid service providers. This challenged the assumption that CA adoption was solely a field management decision controlled by men. A solution that stemmed from the assessment was to target women with tailored CA training that meets women’s practical needs and strategic interests. This includes tailored content (financial reasons to adopt CA), accessible training (time, location, catering for low literacy), financial resources (access to credit) and a resource list of service providers.
Similarly, in Bangladesh, conservative socio-cultural norms restrict women’s ability to participate in paid work outside the home, including field-based agricultural work. Women operating machines is also considered socially unacceptable. The assessment helped identify two demographic groups of women who represented untapped potential in the mechanization market as clients needing service providers and as entrepreneurs. Women who face the double burden of managing the farm and household due to the out-migration of male members stand to benefit from service providers offering mechanized planting, transplanting, or harvesting services. Knowing about the technologies will benefit the women and enable them to be better farm managers or joint managers.
Additionally, farmers who own machinery can benefit as rural entrepreneurs who offer machinery to farmers on an affordable fee-for-service basis, which leads us to the second demographic - female (and male) members of farmer associations. Farmer associations provide better access to markets, extension services, and opportunities for group ownership of a service provision business. An Integrated Pest Management club interviewed in Wazirpur successfully provided thresher, reaper, transplanter and mini-combine harvester services to over 70 farmers every season. The revenue was used to pay youth operators and mechanics, and profits were invested back into the club. Working with women’s groups is an approach to ensure mechanization benefits women, even if they do not operate the machines themselves.
In Burkina Faso, farmer organizations play a critical role in enabling household technology adoption through the provision of training and credit, and in connecting farmers to markets. In particular, the Union des professionnels agricoles de l'Est et du Centre-Est (UPPA-Houet) has a mandate to reach women, with women forming 52 percent of its membership. Women members cited the Union as a key trusted source for information and training on new technologies. The women also believed that it was important for them to introduce relevant new innovations to their husbands: “If women bring this innovation and introduce it to the husband, then the husband will buy it and let them [women] do something else with their time.” Although husbands are key decision makers in a household’s adoption of new technology, they were particularly keen to adopt technologies their wives promoted from training received at the Union. ASMC is using this information to promote a locally manufactured animal-drawn planter designed to lessen women’s drudgery, time and labor during the planting season.
In conclusion, mechanization can benefit women farmers by saving time and labor, and possibly shifting gender roles in the farm or household. Mechanization projects have traditionally focused on women’s formal ownership of the tool as the goal or consider gendered benefits only in women’s operation of a technology. In ASMC’s experience, projects need to consider innovative and low-hanging-fruit approaches by which women can be included in mechanization in a non-threatening manner. This starts with being in dialogue with women and men farmers to understand barriers and enablers in adopting new technologies across the technology uptake pathway.
If you have applied or learned of other innovative approaches to integrate gender into mechanization, please add them in the comments section below!
The author would like to acknowledge that this blog is a product of discussions with Dr. Nicole Lefore, Director of the Innovation Lab for Small Scale Irrigation
FAO (2011) Women in agriculture: closing the gender gap for development, in The State of Food and Agriculture. Social Development Department of the Food and Agriculture Organization.
Manfre, C., Nordehn, C., & Rubin, D. (2017). Technology Assessment Toolkit. INGENAES
Sumner, D., Christie, M.-E., & Boulakia, S. (2016). Conservation agriculture and gendered livelihoods in Northwestern Cambodia: decision-making, space and access. Journal of the Agriculture, Food, and Human Values Society
Theis, S., Bekele, R. D., Lefore, N., Meinzen-Dick, R., & Ringler, C. (2018). Considering Gender When Promoting Small-Scale Irrigation Technologies: Guidance for Inclusive Irrigation Interventions. IFPRI-REACH
Theis, S., Lefore, N., Meinzen-Dicks, R., Bryan, E. (2018) What happens after technology adoption? Gendered aspects of small-scale irrigation technologies in Ethioia, Ghana, and Tanzania. Agriculture and Human Values 35:671-684
Theis, S., Sultana, N., and Krupnik, T. J., (2018) “Overcoming Gender Gaps in Rural Mechanization: Lessons from Reaper-Harvester Service Provision in Bangladesh.” Gender, Climate Change and Nutrition Integration Initiative (GCAN) Policy Note 8; the Cereal Systems Initiative for South Asia (CSISA) Research Note 9. Dhaka, Bangladesh