Promoting Productivity and Empowerment for Women Smallholder Farmers in Uganda

Women smallholder farmers in Uganda are especially vulnerable to climate change. At the same time, women are critical to agriculture, producing the vast majority of the nation’s food. What types of support are needed to reduce women’s vulnerability?

In this Q&A, Dr. Florence Kyoheirwe Muhanguzi discusses the many challenges women smallholder farmers face in Uganda, as well as her new field study that is testing a suite of interventions designed to increase women’s agricultural productivity, empowerment and resilience to shocks that threaten their livelihoods.

Dr. Kyoheirwe Muhanguzi is an associate professor of women's and gender studies at Makerere University in Uganda. She has is the founder and chairperson of the National Association for Women's Action in Development (NAWAD), and received her Ph.D. in gender studies from the University of Cape Town.

How has climate change created or exacerbated challenges that are unique to women farmers in Uganda where your study takes place?

The Isingiro and Alebtong districts in Uganda are among those that have been exposed to the climate change shocks of frequent and intensive weather extremes, such as droughts, heat waves, landslides, hailstorms, erratic rainfall and water stress, disease and pest outbreaks. These districts have also been exposed to price fluctuations, which are major threats to communities that depend on rain-fed agriculture.

These shocks have had significant negative effects on agricultural production, both crop and livestock. These shocks have also affected the limited infrastructure and roads in rural areas, cutting off smallholders from critical input and output markets. These effects have brought communities closer to famine and increased poverty, food insecurity and poor nutrition. They have led to stress among women, especially mothers, and increased sexual and gender-based violence.

Women in both districts are reported to be more vulnerable to agriculture-related shocks because of their limited access to and control over productive resources such as land, agricultural inputs, modern technology, equipment, extension information and financial services. They also have lower levels of literacy and education, as well as time poverty due to triple burden of reproductive, productive and community responsibilities. Gender and social norms further restrict women’s mobility and decision-making.

Because of these limitations majority of the women in Isingiro and Alebtong districts are largely subsistence-oriented, highly dependent on traditional and less-rewarding agronomic practices, using rudimentary inputs and technology. They lack the resources to diversify their livelihoods or to become resilient to climate change shocks and consequences

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected people in these communities?

In March 2020, when the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, Uganda, like the rest of the world, took measures to prevent and limit the spread of the virus. These measures included a national lockdown with curfews, movement restrictions, the shutdown of public transportation, closure of schools and markets among others.

As documented in other places, these measures caused severe disruptions to income generation opportunities, which created economic stress, food insecurity, and troubled rural livelihoods. The COVID19 pandemic lockdown measures of social distancing with closure of schools also increased rural women’s domestic workload, further disrupting their farming activities and their already limited access to agricultural services or extension. The increased interpersonal and economic stress resulted in intimate partner violence, teenage pregnancies and child marriage.

Your study is unique in testing input packages, training in business and sustainable farming practices and gender-transformative mentorship all in the same project. Why did you decide to test them all together?

Our study is looking at the suite of packages and determining which combination will be most effective in enhancing women’s capabilities to adapt to agricultural and climate-change driven shocks. This involves testing the provision of input package (seeds and fertilizer) through a revolving fund mechanism with or without a training in sustainable farming practices and gender-transformative approaches.

Our interventions are designed to address women smallholder farmers’ challenges of limited access to resources such as finance to purchase inputs, limited agricultural and business information as well as the social and cultural norms that hinder their participation in income-generating activities. Women have less access than men to inputs due to low incomes, but also use poor farming methods due to lack of information. Together these limitations keep their productivity low. Women also lack business and entrepreneurship skills to help them diversify income opportunities to enhance their resilience to agricultural shocks and improve their economic welfare.

How might programming focused on productivity and resilience also strengthen women’s empowerment?

Programming around productivity and resilience to agricultural shocks fosters increased production which could lead to increased income from the sale of agricultural produce. Studies show that increased income from agricultural production could enhance women’s economic empowerment by increasing their ability to improve standards of living for themselves and those in their households. However, improved agricultural productivity can only lead to women’s empowerment if women are able to control and make decisions on the incomes derived from the sale of agricultural produce.

What do you think will be your project’s biggest contribution, both directly to the communities where the research takes place as well as in terms of evidence that can strengthen policies and programs that support for women and families?

Because we are implementing a research project, our biggest contribution will be a better understanding of what agricultural and climate change shocks farming communities, especially women, experience. During our intervention phase, we hope we will learn together with women which package suite is most effective in enhancing their resilience so they have increased capacities to adapt to shocks.

On the policy arena, we anticipate informing policy and decision-making on the importance of recognizing the critical nature of supporting women smallholder farmers. Enhancing women smallholder farmers’ resilience to agricultural shocks and empowerment contributes to policy commitment towards gender equality and women’s empowerment as articulated in Uganda’s Vision 2040, the 2020 third National Development Plan (NDP III), the 2007 Uganda National Gender Policy and the 2013 National Agricultural Policy.

Our research project, therefore, offers a window for policy revisions to address women’s vulnerability to agricultural shocks through effective interventions that can increase their agricultural productivity, help diversify their incomes and improve the wellbeing of their families.