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To achieve an inclusive, food-secure and sustainable future for all: move women in agribusinesses up the food security and climate action agendas

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By Ludmila Azo

· 7 min read

The past two months have been marked by three key events: the celebrations of the World Food Day on the theme "Leave No One Behind", and of the Rural Women's Day, on the 15th and 17th of October, respectively, and COP27 in November.

As a true international development professional who loves to build bridges, you can rightly expect that I will associate the notions deriving from these three events - food security, women, and climate change - and make associations. While happening during relatively the same period, the three events are not inherently linked. The mere coincidence they happen to represent rather served as a reminder for me that women are both victims and powerful actors in addressing food insecurity and climate change.

A reminder of the urgency to address food insecurity and gender inequality

Women account for a substantial proportion of the agricultural labour force, and yet, their role is often not adequately recognized and remunerated, and they face higher risks to access training, finance and technology and innovation. Women, in particular rural women, are at the centre of our food systems, and they must be adequately supported if we truly aim for inclusive and sustainable development, especially in Africa.

In Africa, the number of people facing food insecurity at a moderate or severe level raised up from 512 million in 2014 to 794.7 million people in 2021 (the majority in East Africa) – almost 60% of the continent’s population. Can we safely say that Africa is off track to meet the food security and nutrition targets of Sustainable Development Goal 2? I think, yes. It would not be wrong either to say that this situation is also jeopardizing prospects to achieve gender equality. Despite playing a crucial role in the production of food, the 2022 FAO report on the state of food security in the world showed that women (32 per cent) have been experiencing greater food insecurity (both moderate and severe) than men (28 per cent) over time (from 2014-2021), widening the gender food insecurity gap from less than 2 per cent in 2019 to more than 4 per cent in 2021 and supporting the growing recognition that gender inequality and food insecurity are strongly correlated.

Despite the progress achieved over the past decade, the journey to reach zero hunger by 2030 remains a daunting challenge. There are less than 8 years to go, and yet, today, the number of people unable to afford a healthy diet around the world increased by 112 million – to reach 3.1 billion in 2020. By 2050 there will be more than 9.7 billion people on the planet, more than two billion additional mouths to feed by mid-century.

The world is facing a polycrisis that further imperils chances to advance climate action, gender equality and food security

Ending hunger is not only a supply related problem. In fact, there is enough food produced every day to feed every single person on the planet. Over a third of all food produced (nearly 2.5 billion tons) is lost or wasted each year. Part, if not most of the solution lies in the radical transformation of current food systems and making them resilient and sustainable. However, the current global landscape is not helping countries in defining and implementing necessary solutions. Global food systems have been battered by overlapping crises, starting with the Covid-19 pandemic, ongoing conflicts and international tensions, as well as rising prices, persisting inequality and climate change.

Like most countries in the Horn of Africa, Kenya is facing and fighting a particularly severe drought. These droughts… let’s not call them what they are not: natural disasters. They are squarely caused by the climate emergency and are leading to the ever-repeating humanitarian crisis of famine in this region. They are making soils and crops fail, livestock die, and food supplies dwindle, and in result, sending food prices skyrocketing, leaving poor families and women unable to generate a stable income for themselves and afford even basic necessities. Our sister agency, the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP), announced in August 2022 that 22 Million people in the Horn of Africa - Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia - were facing the potential of starvation following its unprecedented four failed rainy seasons.

The food insecurity crisis is likely to be further worsened. Despite hosting more than half of the planet’s arable land – roughly 600 million hectares, Africa remains a net basic food importer (Sub-saharan Africa where worrisome food insecurity rates are prevailing, only produces 10 percent of its agricultural output), with more than 80% coming from outside the continent. This dependency further exacerbates many African nations vulnerability to unstable and unpredictable global food markets:

  • As global supplies become constrained, traders’ preference will go for larger markets, imperilling access to smaller farms across Africa, which provide for 70 per cent of the continent food production.

Drawing from the large share of women active in the food systems, we can easily estimate the disastrous impact of these crises on gender equality-related targets.

The need to support MSMEs and women-led agribusinesses

In these gloomy predictions, there is a silver lining: the work SMEs and agribusinesses in Africa are doing to advance the Zero Hunger and No Poverty goals while at the same time curbing the rippling effects of climate change and promoting inclusive and sustainable development.

When supporting MSMEs, notably women-led ones in their journey to a food-secure and sustainable future for all, it is important to remember among other best practices or recommended approaches, that:

  • There is not a one-size-fits all approach and interventions should always be localized and gender-sensitive. Private-public dialogues, including in the context of the UN Food Systems Dialogues, should drive the design of such interventions.
  • Actions should focus on both mitigation and adaptation to climate change, in particular for women
  • Innovation, including digital technologies are critical in providing solutions that will make farming affordable, profitable, efficient and environment friendly,
  • Both public and private finance are needed: Adequate availability of strategic investments, notably growth-stage / bridge capital to both men and women led agribusinesses are essential, in particular specific gender sensitive financial solutions,
  • Suitable market access solutions should be provided.

Against global crisis, global solutions and collective actions

Ultimately, the impact of climate on smallholder farmers and rural women in Kenya, Eswatini, Bangladesh or in a country you may have never visited before is an everyone problem. We are living in a globalized world where our populations, cultures, economies are interconnected more than ever; and this year’s World Food Day’s theme of Leaving No One Behind reminds us that our world is a chain and if a single person is left behind, the chain is broken. The resulting domino consequences will spare no one.

This is a global crisis that needs global solutions, requiring strong cooperation from at least these four main groups of stakeholders: Governments, Private sector including agribusinesses, international community (donors and development partners) and Consumers.

Efforts to design adequate solutions should reflect a thorough understanding of the types and magnitude of the challenges, the actions and corresponding investments needed at a given moment based on the country’s maturity level, as well as of the role that each stakeholder is best positioned to play.

Because economic growth from agriculture is 11 times more effective at reducing extreme poverty than any other sector in sub-Saharan Africa, it is critical that we continue empowering agribusinesses and women led ones to contribute to the much-needed food systems transformation, building upon the various advancements (and there are quite a few) achieved by African countries and international partners in this regard. This is one of the few chances to effectively advance the UN SDGs and the AU Agenda 2063 and related Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme.

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Ludmila Azo is Country Manager at the International Trade Centre (ITC). Prior to joining ITC, Azo worked in the Energy sector at the Africa Mini-grids Developers Association (AMDA) in Kenya. She has also worked with the UN Department of Political Affairs on coordinating peace and security efforts in the Great Lakes region of Africa.

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