“Now we can Breathe” – Designing Mechanization to Benefit Women Smallholder Farmers
by Maria Jones and Timothy Harrigan
The access and use of agricultural mechanization can play a critical role in increasing farm productivity while reducing the time, labor and drudgery of agricultural production. However, agricultural mechanization (like most technologies) is not always easily adopted, and women farmers are far more likely to face barriers in using mechanized tools. Agricultural mechanization needs to be designed in a manner that reflects the current priorities, perceptions and norms when it comes to both local agricultural systems and gender.
In Burkina Faso, over 80 percent of the labor force is employed in the agriculture sector. However, the level of on-farm mechanization is low, with 70 percent of smallholder farmers relying on hand labor, less than 30 percent using draft animals and less than two percent using tractor power. Women account for more than half of the agricultural labor force in rural areas and produce over two-thirds of the food consumed, however, 95 percent of women in rural areas practice subsistence farming.
Burkinabe women smallholder farmers are typically responsible for planting among other farming tasks such as weeding, harvesting and post-harvest activities. These agricultural tasks are in addition to household tasks such as collecting water, child-care, cooking and fetching firewood, all of which can take up to 16 hours a day. Many women farmers speak of back pain from the hours of stooped labor and physical exhaustion from hand planting. In addition to being labor intensive, time spent on hand planting creates conflicts with women’s individual entrepreneurial efforts in harvesting shea and cashew nuts and planting on their separate plots of land.
The Appropriate Scale Mechanization Consortium’s (ASMC) Burkina Faso Innovation Hub has developed a suite of appropriate mechanization technologies to benefit subsistence farmers. In collaboration with local farmers, the team used a cropping system approach to develop an improved planter, an in-line ripper for seedbed tillage and an improved ox yoke for animal comfort. In the development of the ASMC planter, the innovation hub used a process of adaptive management in evaluating a diverse set of technologies with varying levels of complexity compatible with local economic, social and environmental conditions. This led to redesigning a locally available row-crop cultivator to ensure the improved ASMC planter enhanced local farming systems by balancing higher productivity and environmental sustainability.
In the past, Burkina Faso has seen different mechanical planters and other ‘promising’ technologies fall short of adoption and eventually fail. Reasons have included high cost, poor performance and lack of timely availability for planting seasons. The Innovation Hub addressed these issues by designing the mechanical planters collaboratively with local fabricators. This process helped reduce the material cost for the planter by more than 50 percent, ensured the sustainability of the planter beyond the project lifetime and guaranteed that farmers had local access to skilled labor for planter repair and maintenance. Furthermore, the collaborative process helped build local blacksmiths’ skills and abilities to design, build, evaluate and repair tools and equipment.
To ensure that women smallholder farmers benefit from the planter, the team engaged with women through demonstrations, training and on-farm assistance. The Innovation Hub conducted a gender technology assessment to better identify and address constraints women could face in accessing, using and ultimately adopting the ASMC planter. The gender assessment considered technology design, women’s access to information to learn about new technologies and barriers and enablers to adoption, including prevalent sociocultural norms that dictated whether women could use mechanized technologies. The results of this assessment have led to further design improvements and strategies to better technology dissemination efforts.
In a recent focus group discussion, eight women smallholder farmers who used the planter cited the time and labor-saving impact of the ASMC planter on their lives. Women reported that with a family of three and a team of oxen, they could accomplish the work of a hand planting crew of 15-20. They also reported having more time for their cashew and shea nut enterprises and for tending to their own plots of land. The women used the income to pay for children’s schooling, food, clothing and unexpected family expenses such as medical care. Quoting a woman who used the planter, “God will thank you for what you have done for us. Please do not forget about the women. Now we can breathe.”
The design and development process of the ASMC planter has shown that it is essential to evaluate mechanized innovations both in technical terms and within social, cultural and economic contexts. To avoid the traditional pitfalls in developing new technologies, we need to link innovation to social processes by using a participatory approach involving farmers (male and female), educators and local fabricators. Finally, it is crucial to evaluate technologies through a gender lens to ensure that they reach, benefit and empower women smallholder farmers.
The Appropriate Scale Mechanization Consortium (ASMC) Burkina Faso Innovation Hub is led by the Institute for Rural Development at Nazi Boni University (formerly Université Polytechnique de Bobo-Dioulasso) in Bobo-Dioulasso, Michigan State University, Tillers International and the University of Illinois. ASMC is part of the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Sustainable Intensification.
Michris Janse van Rensburg
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