Front Cover
 Title Page
 Division of labor
 Constraints to development

Group Title: Conference on Gender Issues in Farming Systems Research and Extenion, University of Florida, February 26 to March 1, 1986
Title: Division of labor and farm productivity in Sub-saharan Africa
Full Citation
Permanent Link: http://ufdc.ufl.edu/UF00081685/00001
 Material Information
Title: Division of labor and farm productivity in Sub-saharan Africa
Series Title: Conference on Gender Issues in Farming Systems Research and Extenion, University of Florida, February 26 to March 1, 1986
Physical Description: Book
Language: English
Creator: King, Elizabeth
Publisher: University of Florida
Publication Date: 1986
Subject: Africa   ( lcsh )
Farming   ( lcsh )
University of Florida.   ( lcsh )
Spatial Coverage: Africa -- Sub-Sahara
North America -- United States of America -- Florida
 Record Information
Bibliographic ID: UF00081685
Volume ID: VID00001
Source Institution: University of Florida
Holding Location: University of Florida
Rights Management: All rights reserved, Board of Trustees of the University of Florida

Table of Contents
    Front Cover
        Front Cover
    Title Page
        Title Page
        Page 1
    Division of labor
        Page 2
        Page 3
        Page 4
    Constraints to development
        Page 5
        Page 6
        Page 7
        Page 8
        Page 9
        Page 10
        Page 11
        Page 12
        Page 13
        Page 14
        Page 15
        Page 16
Full Text

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Elizabeth King

Humboldt State University

Arcata, California

Development projects often fail to consider established
gender labor structures of sub-Saharan farming systems. This
paper investigates sexual division of labor and the role it
plays in the dissemination of technology in small scale de-
velopment projects. First it argues that division of labor
is a factor which must be acknowledged by development profes-
sionals. Second, the paper asserts, when planners fail to
examine farm labor structures this inhibits the capacity of
development projects to improve farm productivity. Lastly,
suggestions are offered for incorporating the examination of
arming system labor structures into the planning and imple-
mentation of technological development projects.

In recent years farming systems research and extension

has been increasingly employed to address the critical prob-

lem of low agricultural production throughout sub-Saharan

Africa. The application of this multidisciplinary research

has caused a number of development professionals to recognize

the distinct structure of the division of labor and its

effect on the productivity of farming systems. This paper

examines the role that the division of labor between men and

women plays in agricultural development, specifically the con-

straints and benefits it poses in the dissemination of tech-

nology in small scale agricultural development.

In discussing "the" division of labor in farming systems

of Africa one must expect a degree of inaccuracy, because
sub-Saharan Africa is composed of many diverse cultures.

However, general characteristics can be observed throughout

the region. The division of labor in the farming systems and

households'of sub-Saharan Africa is socially established ac-

cording to a person's age, sex, economic, and social status.

The countries of sub-Saharan Africa share a crucial necessity
to increase their agricultural productivity, which they are

attempting to accomplish through the implementation of tech-

nological development programs. Many sub-Saharan countries

are characterized by the separation of income between men and

women in farming system households. The points argued and

suggestions put forth in this paper, concerning development

projects, are based on the assumption that these general
characteristics exist among the varying cultures of sub-Saha-

ran Africa. Lastly, it is important to note that several re-

lated aspects of African agricultural systems are not addres-
sed in this paper. One is the labor provided by children and

elders. The other is the labor expended in raising live-

stock. Both of these components are important to the opera-

tion of farming systems and merit analysis when a development

project is being designed. However, the subject of this

paper is limited to the division of labor existing between
men and women aged 15-45.


A specific division between tasks performed by men and

women exists throughout the farm environment: in the house-

hold, the cultivated fields, the community, and the acquisi-

tion of income. The households of farming systems are typi-

cally managed by women. Certain tasks must be performed be-

cause women are expected to support their families, and this

work demands a large segment of their daily activities. Do-

mestic work includes activities such as fetching water, ga-

thering fuel, processing food, preparing meals, and rearing

the children. The amount of time women devote to the main-
tenance of the household is exemplified by this statement

from a survey conducted in the Ivory Coast in 1979:

Going back to women's time allocation,
women in the Ivory Coast also, work more
than men: nearly seven hours a day,
against less than four hours for men.
Domestic activities and preparation of
meals (almost two hours), as in Nepal,
make up the same four hours of domestic
services to which men dedicate an average
half an hour only. In addition, women
dedicate almost the same time as men to

food-related activities. (Food Policy
and Nutrition, 1985)
Men contribute little time to the operation of farming system

households. Rather, they make "major" decisions which con-

cern the immediate family, extended family, and finances. A

study, which exemplifies the different work and time women

and men allocate to the household, was conducted in the Cen-

tral Africa Republic by the Bureau Pour le Developpement de
la Productive Agricole, Basqui, 1960. Its stated objectives

were to identify savable time in the farmers' lives as an in-

dispensable preliminary to any serious operation of rural


Domestic tasks, negligible for men, occu-
py more than 3.5 hours of a woman's day.
In addition women's time devoted to agri-
culture activities is equal--in the "tra-
ditional" Pouyamba village, or greater in
the "advanced" village of Madomale--to
men's. Men work instead in the "outer
activities" groups, house construction,
crafts, hunting, amounting to just over 2
hours every day. (Food Policy and Nutri-
tion, 1985)

African cultures are diverse; in the farming communities
there exists a sharp division of labor by gender yet in some
communities women and men work together. Boserup (1970)

identified three main systems of agricultural labor in

African farming communities: exclusively female, predomi-

nantly female,.and predominantly male. Women typically cul-

tivate and manage subsistence crops. Aside from working in

their own fields women are additionally expected to supply
daily labor to other agricultural activities of the farming

system such as providing labor for men's cash crops. The

tasks women generally perform include: planting, weeding,
transplanting, seeding, and harvesting. Men do the work

which requires much physical strength such as field prepara-

tion and plowing. They fell trees and remove bush. In some

African farming systems men have had to assist with hoeing

and harvesting because land is being cultivated more inten-

sively with shorter periods of rest between fallow periods.

Asare (1976) indicates that women throughout sub-Saharan

Africa perform 60-80% of the agricultural work in farming

systems. The migration of men to urban areas, due to econom-
ic pressures, contributes to the increased percentage of

agricultural tasks performed by women. A study conducted on

the allocation of land and labor in Zimbabwe demonstrates the

current situation where women have become the main operators

of their farms because the men have had to migrate to earn a

better income.

Of the 98 families in five villages
studied, in 38 the father was away as a
labor migrant. Several other families
were effective women-headed by widows
with children and grandchildren, leaving
56 families which were headed by women.
In a further 9 the man was present but
had no interest in agriculture. In two
thirds of the families, therefore, all
agriculture was supervised by women, much
of it done by themselves. (Callear,

In sub-Saharan Africa most members of a farming system

family must work and contribute some income to the household
because no one source of income is adequate to support the

household. Agricultural work and various other activities

serve as means of obtaining income for both men and women.
In many regions of sub-Saharan Africa women are expected to

feed the family, clothe the children, and pay for their

schooling. Women derive their cash income from activities

such as selling garden produce, producing and selling crafts,

working in grinding mills, and through the sale of cash and

subsistence crops. Men acquire their incomes from the sale
of cash crops, labor in mines and urban areas, and on planta-

tions. This is the conclusion of Burfisher and Horenstein

(1985) in their study of the Nigerian Tiv farm household.

Women are frequently responsible for
their own and their children's food and
clothing and women's contribution to
their family's nutrition may be crucial
at certain times of the year. Men's
earnings frequently go toward large farm-
ing and family expenses and toward their
own personal expenses.


There are instances where distinct labor structures have

posed a constraint to the success of technological develop-

ment as a result of the failure of project planners, exten-

sion workers, and policy makers to examine gender structures

of farming systems. 1. Agriculture is a prominent element of

the farming system where development has frequently experi-

enced setbacks. 2. Development projects designed to allevi-

ate inefficient labor time and ease physical work, associated

with the "domestic element" have also encountered difficulty

when they overlook characteristics of gender roles of the

household. 3. One other problem, related with the failure of

project designers to examine gender labor structures, is

women's displaced income, as a consequence of the application

of inappropriate technology. The following section will dis-

cuss problems in development which have arisen due to the

lack of recognition of sexual division of labor in farming


Unfortunately, there was little information available

which covers the impact of agricultural and technological

development on men. Yet they have experienced dilemmas. One

such problem is associated with acquiring funds needed to
purchase desired equipment and fertilizers, introduced

through development, to aid in increasing agricultural pro-

ductivity in the short run. For example, small farmers find

themselves at an economic disadvantage when tractors, hy-

brids, and irrigation systems are introduced. They have dif-

ficulty competing with larger farms because they don't have

the capital required to maintain tractors or purchase ferti-

lizers and herbicides which are an integral factor of hybrid


The unexpected difficulties agricultural programs have

confronted often stem from the planners overlooking the im-

portant role of women. This has been detrimental to the

operation of the farming systems. The introduction of cash
crops has created problems for women in various areas of

their agricultural work. They may have had to decrease their
acreage, use marginal land, or divert their labor from sub-

sistence crops because they were expected to devote more

energy to tasks demanded by the increased labor required for

the cultivation of cash crops. Consequently, women have had

to work harder to only receive in-kind payment for their in-

come normally acquired through the propagation of subsistence

crops. This situation is exemplified by Callear (1985), who

conducted research in North Cameroon.

In the last 8 years irrigated rice fields
have been available to whomever registers
for them and pays the annual cost of
inputs. The rice is all sold to the
government authority and returns are sub-
stantial. In practice women and men cul-
tivate these fields together but men
claim the income and then decide how much
to return to their wives. Women's labor
on the rice fields is mainly required at
two stages of cultivation. The first is
transplanting which directly conflicts
with the time needed for weeding sorghum;
their own sorghum yields therefore de-
cline in proportion to the time now allo-
cated to transplanting rice, since there
is no possibility of cutting further into
the three or four hours a day needed for
domestic tasks.

It is important for women to obtain cash from the sale of

subsistence crops because they use their income to clothe

their children and purchase staple goods for the household.

The adoption of cash crops has competed with seasonal demands
of women's subsistence crops. Research conducted in Tiv

farming systems demonstrates some dilemmas which women have

The greatest conflicts for Tiv women are
likely to occur in May, June, and Octo-
ber. In all three months about one third
of women's labor is allocated to crops
which men control all or part of the in-
come. Specifically, in May and June

women's labor on men's millet, rice, and
melon crops competes with planting and
weeding their own yams, maize, and sor-
ghum crops. (Burfisher and Horenstein,

The decline in women's subsistence crop activity jeopardizes

the size of their harvest. This could result in less food

for the household members and could threaten the nutritional

balance of their diet. Finally, the operation of technologi-

cal tools, introduced through agricultural development has

not been taught directly to women or designed specifically to
alleviate their work in subsistence fields. This hinders the

ability of a project to increase agricultural production.

When increased production is desired the technology de-

signed to lessen physical work or increase yields must take

into consideration gender roles in agriculture. For in-

stance, much agricultural research which has focused on

creating hybrids hasn't tried to develop better strains of

subsistence crops. The following example demonstrates inap-

propriate applications of technology due to the failure to

recognize division of labor.

Schemes to introduce hand-operated
weeders have failed because for these to
be efficient, crops must be planted in
straight rows. Usually, however, it is
the men who have been taught this tech-
nique, while it is the women who do the
actual planting. Schemes to introduce
scythes to speed up the harvesting of
crops have also had a negative impact.
Women traditionally perform this task
using a small penknife which they use to
cut each stalk of the crop one by one.
Their reluctance to adopt the faster
method of using scythes is not without
reason. The scythe necessitates cutting
further down the stalk and this in turn

involves a much heavier load to be
carried from the farm to the home.
(Callear, 1985)

The need to improve agricultural production can only

occur through the employment of "useful" technology. In

order for technology to be effective it must be adapted to

the existing economic and social structure of the farming
system. This has been indicated by the inadequate introduc-

tion of scythes designed to speed crop harvests.
Development planners have experienced difficulty when

they have attempted to alleviate the time required to perform

domestic work of the farming system household. Even though

it has been determined that women typically head households

and are responsible for the processing of food, technology

designed to decrease women's workloads has often been

inappropriate. Two areas where this has occurred are in the

processing of food and collection of water. In the former
area technology was designed by men who had not performed the

tasks which the technology was geared to improve. An example

of this problem involves the introduction of "improved" maize

An innovation with a somewhat different
handicap is that of the handheld maize
seller. Several types of these have
been designed--all by men who, unlike
rural African women, have not spent even
a day let alone a lifetime in shelling
maize with their bare hands. Since women
find they can shell the maize much more
quickly with their own hands than with a
seller, they see no point in buying one
of these (however little it costs) and
the money and time which went into the
development and production of such de-
vices was wasted. (Carr, 1978)

Setbacks have occurred when developers failed to realize the

importance of consulting women about their needs and failed
to teach women how to maintain and repair introduced

technologies. An instance where this took place involved the

usage of water pumps and other water systems designed for

drawing water.

At present, if training is given at all,
Sit is given to the men who see no great
urgency in looking after water supply
equipment when women are always available
to collect water from further afield if
the pump or piping system breaks down.
Under such circumstances it is no great
surprise that an estimated 80 percent of
all pumps installed in Third World
vill es are now out of order. (Carr,
Because domestic labor demands much time from women and often

coincides with hard physical work it is crucial that develop-

ment planners and extension agents beg the questions, "What

is the established labor structure of the household?" and

"Does this new technology effectively improve domestic tasks

performed by women without creating unexpected side effects

which render the technology useless?". Government officials

must recognize the importance of technology used to perform
domestic tasks and promote projects which address this factor

of the farm. Domestic work can be decreased this would en-
hance the opportunity of women to improve their agricultural
yields and increase their income generating activities.
Also, this would increase their ability to participate in

nutritional, educational, and home economic development pro-

grams. These possible improvements would benefit the entire
farming system.

Sub-Saharan Africa is characterized by diverse agricul-

tural societies; therefore, in this section it is inappropri-

ate to make specific suggestions for methods of development.

Hence, general recommendations which appear to be vital for

the success of small scale development programs will be put

forth. Due to the costs involved with agricultural and tech-

nological development, projects have tended to be oriented

toward obtaining short term results. As a consequence, com-

plex farming systems have not received close examination and,

as we have seen, unexpected problems have arisen which deter-

red the success of development. Ideally, effective develop-

ment programs should approach agricultural and domestic di-

lemmas of production with a long term solution as their goal.

Yet this has often been constrained due to the inability of

African governments to economically afford the promotion of
detailed development schemes which would work with many indi-
vidual rural communities. The cost of development does pose

restrictions but African governments must regard rural agri-

cultural development as their highest priority if they truly

desire to substantially increase the food production of their
countries. Because short term development seems more feasi-

ble due to the poor economic standing of sub-Saharan coun-

tries, projects should seek to introduce small initial
changes which are affordable, practical, easily possible, and

when taken together have the potential to bring about signi-
ficant improvements in the overall quality of rural life,

which will in turn promote improved productivity of agricul-

ture, enabling long term success.

Farming systems research and extension possesses quali-
ties which make its application a priority in development

whenever it is economically feasible. This technique views
the farm as an integrated system in which the parts are

closely interrelated (Shaner, Philip, and Schmehl, 1984).
Also, this form of research is multidisciplinary, allowing it

to enhance development because professionals from various

fields combine their expertise to analyze and solve a problem

(Shaner, Philip, and Schmehl, 1984). With this approach an

emphasis is placed on working with extension agents in order

that they can provide beneficial and effective assistance to

To enhance farming systems research, African governments

should promote educational facilities which educate extension
workers about the agricultural techniques applied in their

countries. They should also be knowledgeable of the tech-
niques used in developed countries and the problems associa-

ted with them. This would enable the extension agents to
better understand the operations of African farms and prepare

them to work with a research team involved with farming sys-
tems development. Extension workers must be taught how to

work with women as well as men to effectively contribute to

the success of rural development because women play a crucial
role in the operation of farming systems.

Farming systems research could be more efficacious if

researchers and extension workers encouraged men and women of

the farming system to participate in designing and implement-

ing project schemes. The people laboring in the fields and

households know what changes need to occur to meet their

needs. If development planners make the effort to work with

women and men of farming systems and heed their ideas, the

many costs associated with unsuccessful programs could be

When the division of work involved with the cultivation

of cash crops, subsistence crops, domestic chores, and income

acquisition is closely analyzed, the dilemmas development

projects encounter could be alleviated if not, in some cases,

eliminated. Information does indicate that development agen-

cies in Africa and many African governments have begun to

seriously investigate the role of women in farming systems.

They have also started to examine how technology can be de-
signed to successfully decrease labor requirements and in-

crease production without creating unanticipated dilemmas for
women and men of sub-Saharan farms. Unfortunately, documen-

ted studies which demonstrate the format of successful de-
velopment are hard to find. Currently, much information

which offers suggestions for development can be obtained.

The time has come to pool research and conduct studies that

explain why successful projects have succeeded, along with

providing information which indicates that sub-Saharan farms

have been viewed as holistic systems in which the division of

labor between women and men plays a vital role.


1. Asare Janet, "Making Life Easier for Africa's Rural
Women." UNICEF News. Issue 89, 1976, pp. 20-24.
2. Balcomb, John, "The Man's Role." UNICEF News. Issue 89,
1976, pp. 29-31.
3. Boserup, Ester, Woman's Role in Economic Development.
London: George Allen and-Uwin LTD., 1970, pp.

4. Burfisher, Mary E. and Horenstein, Nadine R., "Sex Roles
and Development Effects on the Nigerian Tiv Farm
Household." Rural Africana. Winter, 1985, pp.

5. Burton, Michael L. and White, Douglas R., "Sexual
Division of Labor in Agriculture." American
Anthropologist. American Anthropological
Association, 1986, pp. 568-582.

6. Byerlee, Derek; Harrington, Larry; and Winkelmann, Donald
L., "Farming Systems Research: Issues in Research
Strategy and Technology Design." American Journal
of Agricultural Economics. American Agricultural
Economics Association, December, 1982, pp. 898-904.

7. Callear, Diana, "Women and Coarse Grain Production in
Africa" in Women in Agricultural Production, 1985.
Food and Agri-Tcut al organization of the United
Nations, pp. 7-15.

8. Carr, Marilyn, Appropriate Technology for African Women.
Addis Ababa: U.N. Economic Commission for Africa,
1978, pp. 26-31.

9. Charlton, Sue Ellen, Women in Third World Development.
Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1984, pp. 84-91.

10. Dixon, Ruth, "Land, Labour, and Sex Composition of the
Agricultural Labor Force: An International
Comparison." Development and Change. Sage, London,
Beverly Hills, and New DelhTT Vol. 14, 1983, pp.

11. Food Policy and Nutrition, "Time Allocation Survey: A
Tool for Anthropologists, Economists, and
Nutritionists," in Women in Agricultural Production.
Food and Agricultural Organization of the United
Nations, 1985, pp. 22-25.

12. Martin, Franklin W., "Women's Role in Root and Tuber
Crops Production," in Women in Agricultural
Production. Food and Agricultural Organization of
the United Nations, 1985, pp. 10-14.

13. Shaner, W.W.; Philip, P.F.; and Schmehl, W.R., Farming
Systems Research and Development: Guidelines for
Developing Countries. Westview Special StudiesiTn
Agriculture/Aquaculture Science and Policy, 1984.

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