DES MOINES, Iowa (Reuters) - Sub-Saharan Africa faces daunting problems staving off famine in coming decades but food and development experts also say one solution to the problem is obvious: empower women.
"They are the major producers of food crops in Africa. If we want to make a real headway on food production, we should be able to invest in women, improve their skills and access to the inputs they require," said Namanga Ngongi, president, Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), a top seed producer.
"Women don't need more work," he said in an interview on the sidelines of the World Food Prize meetings here. "They are working enough. We need technologies that increase the productivity and reduce the amount of labor. They work a lot in the fields," he said.
Ngongi and other development and agriculture officials said that women are also a key to land reform in many sub-Saharan Africa, where land is often owned by communities.
"There must be some ways of organizing a little bit better the rights of the people who are the major producers of food in Africa. It is largely women who are in the food crops. Men are in the cash crops, like cocoa, coffee," said Ngongi.
"It's critically important that if you want to address hunger, particularly in Africa, to focus on the women because it's their role to feed the family," said Ritu Sharma, president of Women Thrive Worldwide, a speaker at the Forum.
Women from Kenya to Liberia now plant and tend the key food crops like corn, sorghum, millet, sweet potatoes, casaba and peas. More than half of Africa's farmers are women, with most tending crops on small plots of land they can't own.
"A better sense of land tenure rights for women is needed. That's a big handicap. If you don't have assurance that you're going to use a piece of land for several years, why would you invest in improving that piece of land?" Ngongi said.
A report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations circulated at the Des Moines meetings said if women had the same access to production resources as men, they could increase yields on farms by 20 to 30 percent.
The biggest obstacle women face is discrimination, experts and officials said. But women in Africa receive also little agricultural training and do not have rights to land.
"It's either illegal in their country for women to own property or it's legal but all of the customs run against that. So a woman can never have her own land," Sharma said.
She cited Burkina Faso as an example. A woman must get the permission of her husband, men in the village and the local chief to attain land rights. Even if she is then lucky enough to get all the approvals, the fee charged women to register the land equals three months income, Sharma said.
"If you had to choose between feeding your kids and registering your land, it's not a difficult decision. That kind of discrimination, that is so apparent in the culture, has to be addressed. The only way to do that is raise women's awareness about their rights and educate the men," she said.
Mary Rono, a Kenyan dairy farmer who tends 10 cows, was a woman at the Des Moines meeting as one beating the odds.
Rono, married and the mother of four grown children, is head of the Koitogos Dynamic Dairy Cooperative Society, a co-op she founded nine months ago following leadership training sponsored by U.S. Agency for International Development and Land O'Lakes, a farm cooperative based in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Co-op members, mostly men, voted her into office calling her "the vision carrier of the society," said Rono in an interview, who formed the cooperative with a goal to sell milk on a contract basis directly to a local creamery and milk-broker. Membership has grown to 350 from 15 since February and produces 1,000 liters of milk each day, she said.
"In Kenya most of the labor force is provided by the women," Matilda Auma Ouma, an official of the Kenya ministry of agriculture, said at the meeting. "We try to encourage women to form groups, the extension approach. Where the women are homogenous groups we try to sensitize them about technologies, information."
The United Nations in May projected world population to rise to more than nine billion people by 2050 from seven billion today. About 49 percent of that growth is projected in sub-Saharan Africa, an area of both low incomes with relatively low levels of agricultural productivity, a report by the agribusiness group Global Harvest Initiative said this week.
Experts at the meeting said innovation must include new thinking about small farmers, especially African women.
"The fate of the small land holder could effectively determine the world's long-term food security," Michael Mack, CEO of giant seed maker Syngenta said. "At 450 million small farms typically supporting five members per household - means a third of this world's population directly depends on these small farms for part of their livelihood."
Africa, unlike Asia, has massive amounts of arable land. But crop yields lag far behind the world's top farmers.
"Women are the key to successful agriculture in Africa," said Roy Steiner, deputy director for agricultural development for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has been actively funding agricultural projects in Africa.
"You're going to miss out on over half of the farmers if you don't address them, getting a lower return on investment," said Steiner, who lived in Zimbabwe for eight years before joining the Gates Foundation.
"I want to be able walk into a group of African agricultural decision makers and not only see men, which happens now. Ten years from now I'll walk into a room and see women at the table. They are going to be changing the priorities and how things get done," Steiner said.
(Editing by Peter Bohan)
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