Make your own free website on

Morolong, B L






To be able to clearly understand the connections between agriculture, gender, the extension delivery system and people's quality of life, one needs to look at the issues within the context of the broad debate on development. Some of the pertinent question in this debate are, whose development? Necessary to understand too is who plays a role in development and in the process of modernisation. Another key question is, what factors interact to enhance or limit the process of development. In addition to being an attempt to answer these questions, this paper is also a reflection on the effects of development (in its various forms) on the different groups of society in terms of their quality of life. Receiving special attention among the (many groups) are women in farming and in relation to agricultural extension services of the developing world. The discussion is commenced by outlining who the woman farmer is.



The concept of woman farmer is used in this paper to denote a woman or women heading farming households and carrying out the overall agricultural activities in these households. These activities can be categorised into economic and non economic activities. They include processing and marketing of agricultural outputs within a farming household *(Saito and Spurling, 1992:2). These women participate in agricultural decision making as de jure and de facto household heads. They contribute their ideas and their labour and on the whole they make significant contributions in agricultural production. They do all of these within the established gendered patterns of division of labour.

According to Dixon cited in * Saito and Spurling (1992) these women constitute 38% of the agricultural labour force, with the highest figures in Sub Saharan Africa at 46% followed by South East Asia at 45% (p.176). Saito and Spurling (1992) further note that in many parts of the developing world, the role of the woman in farming systems is pivotal (p.71). In societies in transition such as Lesotho, some of the women's traditional roles in agriculture are changing. However, the basic socio-economic structures do not keep pace with the changes. For example, the women's position in the family in these patriarchal societies together with the inherent structures that define that position are still relatively intact. It is important at this point to examine the position of women in agriculture.


The role of women in agriculture is very important. The situation that obtains in relation to women's access to land, capital and technology within the context of changing societies of the world is of major interest in this paper. The position of women is reviewed in the context of subsistence agricultural forms as well as in commercialised holdings.

Since after the hunter food gatherer age to the present, researchers show that women have been doing the bulk of the agricultural work in the developing world. In the case of Southern Africa, Germond writing on Botswana cited in Van der Werf (1990) said that

The women are treated almost as slaves. It is they who are burdened with the irksome tasks, for in addition to their household duties, they have to build houses and cultivate the fields (p.18).

In Lesotho, another country in Southern Africa, women play a key role in agricultural management and decision making (Khabele, (1985) Saito and Spurling (1992) further mention that studies conducted by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations, IFAD and other international agencies focused on agriculture reveal the following; that women account for 70-80% of household food production in Sub-Saharan Africa, 65% in Asia and 45% in Latin America and the Caribbean. In the context of Sub Saharan Africa, 78% of the agricultural activities that women engage in are economic activities (p.1) According to these authors and others (Moris, 1981:18) agriculture is infact feminised (p.xii). In this regard Moris observes that the women farmers' agricultural activities are concentrated around the household so that they can be aligned with the women's family welfare and reproductive roles. Also worth noting in this regard is the fact that the women's farm managers' role is becoming increasingly popular the world over. This is mainly due to industrialisation processes whereby men leave their homes to look for paid employment in urban centres. The experiences of most countries in Southern Africa in relation to the male migration to the mines of South Africa is a classical example. The way this practice has contributed to the increase in the phenomenon of female household headship is fully documented.

The increasing phenomenon of female household headship is associated with industrialisation because traditionally every member of the family engaged in agricultural production. Even though this was within distinct patterns of division of labour, it was also very common for labour and resources to be pooled for bigger tasks (Van der Werf, 1990). With this type of farm work organisation, no family members had to go away for any extended periods. However, as processes of industrialisation got intensified in the developing countries, the struggles between agricultural production and industrial work also intensified. These changes ushered in new patterns of family structure and social differentiation. In the new structures the roles of individual family members in relation to agricultural production are changed and there are specific distinctions between the farmers. In the case of countries such as Lesotho the contradictory effects of industrialisation on agricultural production have been noted. One of the contradictions is that migrant labour remittances have made it possible for farmers to access farm inputs and improve production, but at the same time the decline in agricultural production is seen to be a factor of the increased male absence in farming as their dependence on the sale of labour to the South African mining sector increases. The men's subsequent participation in the cash nexus, forces them to leave the women to do the bulk of the agricultural work. (Van der Werf 1990:6) While there is a clear relationship between agricultural activity, industrialisation and the role of women in the farming sector, another very important element in this equation is that of commercialisation of agriculture.


It is my view that in the context of most parts of the developing world it might not be quite fitting to talk about commercialised agriculture in the strict sense. Introduction of the cash crop or crops might be the more appropriate concept. It is observed that early efforts to promote cash crop production were state efforts (Parpart and Staudt, 1989:37. The state oriented such efforts almost entirely toward men, excluding women from access to agricultural extension services and credit. This was so despite the fact that women substantially contributed labour to agricultural production. Men's access and control over cash crops and income accrued from these crops also meant that their position of power and authority in the household was further reinforced.

For technological advances that accompanied this commercialisation, Eldredge (cited by Van der Werf 1990): writing on Lesotho noted that the technologies were readily available and adopted when they benefitted men (p.19). The most mentioned example of a piece of technology in this regard is the ox drawn plough which was adopted for use by men while other technologies such as the harrow which could be used for weeding (which is a female task in these cultures) are up to now, still not as popular as the plough (Van der Werf 1990, Lovett in Papart and Saudt, 1989: p.38).

Even though it is one of the most important issues that contributed to the continued concentration of women in subsistence level farming, commercialisation of agriculture is far from being the most important. In the absence of information from any research about which of the numerous factors (that relate to the women's question in agriculture) ranks high, it is useful in this analysis to focus on one of the very important ones. And this is the issue of women and land. In discussing the theme of this paper which is women, agricultural extension and the quality of life, one would really be missing the point if they ignored land issues in the context of the developing world.


Land issues and the quality of life of the people in subsistence agricultural economies are closely tied. Land in, these economies is both an economic and social factor. One might also argue that it is in this area where gender really makes a difference. Studies from the Southern Africa region reveal that women in general have the right to cultivate the land. The problematic issue is that of their control over land in the sense that most of the land tenure systems do not grant women the right to own land on their own but only as members of families. Rights to land in this region and in most parts of the developing world are a male prerogative that is both legally and socio-culturally sanctioned.

Land issues are often considered male issues and male domination of land is almost deemed a natural process. (Oxfam, 1996:35). According to this Oxfam paper and others, women's interests in land are subsumed under those of the family or the household. Women have problems to access and own land due to their legal minority status. This results in landlessness being more prevalent among women. Problems of landlessness are acute in situations such as that of Lesotho where general land shortages are escalating due to land degradation (Van der Werf (1990:27).

The situation of limited or no rights to land for women impacts negatively on the status of the female farmer as discussed in this paper. It creates perpetual state of dependency whereby the women have limited say in major family or household affairs. This is so because land ownership is symbolic of power relations. Also, dependency of individuals, groups or even nations is an undesirable state in both the economic and psychological sense. It often culminates in conflict and strained relations. The strained relationships sometimes lead to violence and family instability as struggles for resources continue to unfold and the powerless become more and more vulnerable.

Agarwal is cited by Jacobs, 1996:41 arguing that land rights reduce the risk of poverty which hits more women than men in developing societies. Arguments are also strong that land holding for women would enable them to exert more influence in the family, wield a little bit more power in society, counteract ill-treatment and lessen their chances of being abandoned (p.41). Writing on the effects of land tenure in Lesotho, Khabele (1985) observes that women in general do not have security of tenure. She goes further to observe that land being one of the crucial capital items for agricultural activity discussions of issues relating to land should go far beyond access and ownership. Khabele argues that land issues are also about which land the women have access to. In her view and the view of other writers on the subject, women have access to small land holdings. These small holdings often only enable women to provide for the subsistence and welfare needs of their families. The small land holdings do not make the women qualify as targets of agricultural services since they do not help them fit the conventional concept of "farmer". As a result of the type of targeting where large scale farmers are more important, women's crop suffer and the general family welfare declines (Newbury and Schoeff, 1989:98) as larger fields become points of focus for credit, extension advice and access to technology. 


Agricultural extension according to Savanson and Claar cited by Widemann in Rivera and Schramm (1987) is

...... an organised non formal educational activity, usually supported and/or operated by government to improve the productivity and welfare of rural people (p.175).

It is an educational process in which the farmers are equipped with information, knowledge and skills to enable them to function effectively in the areas of production and use of farm inputs and outputs. Discussion of issues relating to agricultural extension revolve around access to extension, the role of research in extension, methods of extension as well as the targets of extension, to mention but a few. The central focus of this part of my paper is how extension services have fared in terms of servicing the needs of the woman farmer.

Worldwide, write Saito and Spurling (1992:17) extension system reach more men than women farmers. In the context of the developing worlds, Rivera and Schram (1987) say that;

There is persistent evidence that agricultural extension in the developing world is not reaching the poorer farmers and other agencies tend to focus instead on the better off farmers who probably represent not more than 20 percent of the total (p.106).

The pertinent question in this connection is, who are the poorer farmers. (Reference was made earlier in the paper, to the fact that women farmers are the small scale farmers who because of too limited or no access to credit cannot afford the large scale capital intensive technological innovations and in essence it is these innovations that extension services are to promote.

An evaluation study conducted on a Caribbean Agricultural Extension project revealed that women were heavily involved in farming and yet they lacked contact with extension agents (Weideman in Rivera and Schram (1989:182) Weiderman attributes this situation to lack of gender awareness by extension agents as well as existence of gender differentiated communication networks and scarcity and/or ineffective use of females in the extension services (p.182).

Extension services are instead focused to and designed for men. These are large scale farmers who are the normal target group of extension services because they have legal majority status. They also have access to and control over land as well as other complementary economic factors such as capital and labour, including women's labour. The major assumption underlying this targeting is that "farmer" denotes a man a male head of a farming household. Secondly it is assumed that the information made available, which is often selected will trickle down to the wives of farmers.

A survey carried out on women farmers in Burkina Fasso in relation to extension information showed that only 1%, of the surveyed women had heard information from their husbands (Saito and Spurling, 1992:18). It is also assumed that men are the agricultural decision makers. However research from Lesotho (Khabele, (1985) and Van der Werf, 1990) and from Asia and other parts of the world, Axinn (1977) reveals that women make the daily decisions about farm inputs and purchases. In the context of Lesotho, this is to be expected where female household headship in the rural setting is estimated at 55% (Van der Werf, 1990).

Axinn (1977) in discussing what he calls in his own words, the most relevant and illuminating issues concerning the effectiveness of agricultural extension services in developing countries notes the anomaly that in many parts of world, most of the farmers are women but most of the extension personnel are men (p.113). For example for Africa (Saito and Spurling (1992) report that in 1989, only 70% of extension agents were women (p.XIV). This has posed as a problematic situation since in many societies of the developing world cultural factors constrain interaction across gender. For example, in Muslim countries, this is reportedly very serious. This often limits personal contact between male extension farmers and the women farmers. In many instances such personal contact between extension personnel and women farmers because is absolutely necessary other possible forms of media for example print do not effectively reach women due to high rates of illiteracy among them. Correlations between education or number of years of schooling and agricultural production have been made by Moock cited in Saito and Spurling (1992). This strengthens the assertion that if literacy programmes could also focus more specifically on women farmers this could augment their productivity (Saito and Spurling, 1992:178).

Cultural factors that constrain women also include their limited movement whereby the woman farmer's participation in training programmes that are run at centres away from home is either unacceptable or at other instances impossible.


It is evident from the foregoing presentation that women farmers are not farmer's wives but farmers in their own right. These women grow food for their subsistence and that of their families. Their agricultural practices involve crops that may not be commercially viable or whose prices are low in the market. Even though these crops are not usually used for the enhancement of the women's economic power, but they serve specific functions in the areas of health and nutrition.

A good measure of success for efficient extension is improved production and enrichment of real life and the overall human condition. However the women farmers' engagement in farming and food production activities goes beyond issues of productivity. (Axinn, 1977:105) It is about skills to process, store and preserve the food. To be able to effectively carry out these tasks the woman farmer needs education, information and technology as well as access to credit and the markets.

Apparently the woman farmer's needs and interests in the above mentioned areas are not adequately understood as the researchers continue to make information available to the "farmer", a concept that is not gender disaggregated. Such information is often collected on the household or the family. The main assumption in this regard is that a family is a united front where everybody is pursuing goals directed at satisfying the whole. To the contrary, research on the family reveals that in the family there is a multiplicity of needs, interests and goals. Most of these needs are gendered. The family has also been said to be the seat of conflict. When interests of individual members clash over resources, there is potential for competition for these resources. This often results in conflict.

Within a farming household, men and women have different roles, resources and benefits. Perhaps this is why Axinn (1992) argue that,

The opportunity for significant improvements in the effectiveness of agricultural extension may hinge on the ability of the systems to respond appropriately to the challenging realities of women in agriculture (p.113).

One of these challenging realities is that of the role strains that are experienced by the woman farmer as she performs her productive or reproductive and community maintenance roles for social reproduction within the family. The burdening effects of agricultural developments only make the situation worse for women. This is especially so in the phase of cultural attitudes about gender roles and responsibilities that circumscribe women's activities, decision making authority and interactions with men. The burden on women as the welfare givers is also increased due to demographic pressures where resources are becoming less and less as populations increase rapidly and the capital food outputs fail to keep pace (Saito and Spurling, 1992:5).

It is true that constraining factors to agricultural productivity are not unique to women. However it is also clear that an efficient extension services delivery system is one of the key factors for improved agricultural productivity. It makes available to the farmers, information about resources and financial services, markets, technology and access to infrastructural services. Therefore, even though most researchers in agriculture do not seem to connect agricultural improvement with women (Van der Werf, 1990:26) greater success will be realised when all the farmers, women farmers included are provided with appropriate assistance to become effective managers.

The apparent preoccupation of researchers with the absence of men in agriculture with little interest on the abundance of women (Van der Werf, 1990:28) needs to be addressed. A strategy that seems workable is that one suggested by the report of the World Conference on Agrarian Reform and Rural Development (WCARR) cited by Axinn in Rivera and Schram(1989). In this report agricultural extension acquisition systems are recommended and preferred to agricultural extension delivery systems which are government sponsored and have failed (p.109). The former are participatory and reach large numbers of small farmers more effectively. The report further indicates that an increasing number of countries which use these acquisition systems are specifying small farmers as their main target clientele. (p.110)

The participatory nature of the extension acquisition system also means that the centralised way of running extension is alleviated as the target groups get an opportunity to influence the agenda of extension. In this system, a policy of representation applies and the groups of farmers in their different categories input into extension and ensure that it addresses their specific needs. (p.109) The system also gets readjusted as the local situations change.

There is evidence from research to suggest that when women in farming receive attention, it is usually by way of intensifying their horticultural activities. And yet, the broad based participation of women in farming shows that their views about what makes good quality life is just as holistic (Saito and Spurling, 1992:1). Their involvement in horticulture does mean that there will be more food and better nutritional intake for the household members, and better and healthier productive energy for agricultural activities. But these are the types of details that are not revealed by agricultural statistical reports because they are seen as the typical female responsibilities. These responsibilities have not been fitted into the conventional meaning of "work".

The presumably gender neutral concept of work has overlooked the overall intra household dynamics which as mentioned earlier involve acute labour demands on women unequal resources allocations and the inherently unequal power relations within patriarchal societies (Weideman, 1987:192). All of these it can be concluded, limit the woman farmer's capacity to fully exploit her potential to contribute to the quality of her life, and that of her family. And most unfortunately, agricultural extension services delivery system have not helped her deal with this problem. Instead they continue to marginalise her and treat her as "the farmer's wife."


1. Axinn, G.H. (1992) The different systems of Agricultural Extension with special attention to Asia and Africa. In Rivera, W.M. and Schram, S.G. (eds) 1987 Agricultural Extension Worldwide: Issues Practices and Emerging Priorities. New York. Croom Helm p103-115

2. Khabele, J and Mullan, K., (1985) Land Tenure: The Effects on Womens Participation in Agricultural Development. a Paper presented to a Research Forum on the Dynamics of Land Tenure Agrarian System in Lesotho National University of Lesotho. Roma.


3. Moris, J., (1992) Incentives for Effective Agricultural Extension at the Farmer/Agency Interface. In Rivera, W.M. and Schram, S.G. (eds)(1987) Agricultural Extension World Wide: Issues, Practices and Emerging Priorities. New York Croom Helm pp.199-225.

4. Oxfam (1996) Gender and Development. London Oxfam Publications.

5. Parpart, J.L and Staudt, K.A. (19789) Women and the State in Africa. Boulder, Colorado. Lynne Rienner Publishers.


6. Rivera, W.M. and Schram, S.G. (eds )(1987) Agricultural Extension

Worldwide: Issues, Practices and Emerging Priorities. New York. Green Helm.



7. Saito, K. and Spurling, D., (1992) Developing Agricultural Extension for Women Farmers. Washington D.C. World Bank.


8. Van der Werf, I., (1990) Agriculture: Women and Development Planners in Lesotho. The Institute of Southern Africa Studies, National University of Lesotho.


9. Weidermann, C.J. (1987) Designing Agricultural Extension for Women Farmers in Developing Countries. In Rivera W.M. and Schram, S.G. (eds) (1987) Agricultural Extension Worldwide. Issues, Practices and Emerging Priorities. New York. Croom Helm.



[ BOLESWA'97 Home ] [ Table of Contents ]
[ Abstracts ] [ List & Search of Papers ]
[ University of Swaziland ] [ Swaziland Institute of Distance Education ]

[ Related Web Sites ] [ Directory of Links ]

This Web Site was edited and produced by Professor Stewart Marshall
(email: )
Copyright 1998 Institute of Distance Education and authors of papers
Last modified:  26-Apr-99