The month of October marks International Rural Women’s Day and World Food Day. It is no coincidence that the two days raise issues that are intimately linked and lie at the base of our country’s future livelihood.
Rural women, the majority of whom depend on natural resources and agriculture for their livelihoods, make up over a quarter of the total world population. However, they live precarious lives despite the fact that they hold the keys to food security.
Rural women play multifaceted roles, including the production of agricultural crops, tending animals, processing and preserving food, employment in agricultural or other rural enterprises, collecting fuel and water, as well as caring for family and maintaining their homes.
Nevertheless, women face greater land constraints than men and most do not own land or have access to rented land. Moreover, the land women do have access to is often of poorer quality and in smaller plots.
Greater poverty, lower levels of education, and lack of credit among women make rural women more dependent on the government’s Farm Input Subsidy Program (FISP). This program is a conduit for international seed and fertilizer companies, who undermine local traditional seeds and support for agro-ecological farming methods.
The regionally-constituted Rural Women’s Assembly (RWA) argues that FISP has become a political tool and does little to improve the situation of rural women constructively. Unless this changes, our country risks jeopardizing the diversity of food sources for our markets and households. Both household and national food sovereignty is essentially under threat.
Food sovereignty is when people have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life. Twenty-two years since the dawn of our democracy, food insecurity remains a challenge in our country.
Research from 2004 suggests that about 35% of the population are vulnerable and food insecure. Given the rising cost of living and food prices, this figure has most likely gone up. Food insecurity is definitely more pervasive in rural areas, with the majority of poor people located in rural areas and roughly 75% of those chronically poor.
Our government has yet to take significant steps aimed at advancing sustainable livelihoods and strengthening food security throughout the population.
Our current development paradigm over-emphasizes the extractive industries and the industrial agri-business export model. This is at the expense of small-scale food producers and farmers, and indeed our own markets and food supplies.
As a result we are seeing greater monopolization of food distribution with a few supermarkets controlling the distribution of food, what is sold and what we eat. In many instances local, indigenous food is replaced by “fast foods”, displacing local markets.
The extrativist, agri-business paradigm impacts directly on the livelihoods of poor communities. Land and marine sources are lost, environments and eco-systems are destroyed, and as we swiftly loose control over food supply sources through this model, there is little regulation that can be implemented to protect and advance food security for all. At the same time, the world and Africa in particular live in a time of deep climate crisis involving drought, floods, fires and destruction of top soil.
Our government must urgently change the way it sees small-scale farmers. Poor support and the slow pace of land reform means many of these farmers are forced out of business or have lost their livestock due to roaming.
Government needs to provide robust support to small-scale farmers which should include strategies that provide a safety-net to them in times of drought or floods, as well as providing technical support in the form of training, mentoring or access to markets.
No doubt small scale farmers will greatly benefit from subsidies and government must urgently explore this, but these farmers also need tenure of security on land as well as access to water. Moreover, small scale agriculture has the potential to feed our people and mitigate against climate change.
In a future marked by great uncertainty around climate predications, water resources and environmental integrity, we need to ensure a much bigger investment in small-scale farmers. More specifically, the investment should be with farmers who practice agro-ecological planting methods and produce food crops as opposed to cash crops.
*Article submitted by Mercia Andrews