Gender and Soil Fertility Management in Mbale District, Southeastern Uganda

by Abe Goldman and Kathleen Heldenbrand


This paper explores gender-related aspects of agriculture and agricultural change in a densely populated, high potential area in eastern Uganda, particularly in relation to declining productivity in the region.  Much recent literature has investigated the impacts of specific agricultural policies and projects on women farmers in sub-Saharan Africa.  In many cases, these policies and projects have resulted in unexpectedly negative consequences for women – and often failed in other objectives as well – to a large extent because they did not adequately consider the critical and complex roles that women play in most African agricultural systems.  Far less often examined in the literature on gender, have been the chronic but pervasive impacts of persistently low agricultural productivity throughout most of sub-Saharan Africa.  This stagnation is one of most striking and widespread features of agriculture in Africa today, and it stands in sharp contrast to the experience of most developing regions in Asia and Latin America.  The impacts of this stagnation and decline in agricultural productivity are likely to be particularly severe for African women farmers, whose economic livelihoods are so closely linked to the production and sale of agricultural products and services.

The paper also examines gender differentiation in agricultural activities and resources in the survey region and the interaction of gender with other household and demographic characteristics.  Many aspects of gender roles in African agriculture are more complex and variable than is often assumed, including the common assumption that women specialize in food crop production while men concentrate on nonfood cash crops.  Moreover, important features of age and household structure overlap with gender in complex ways, and characteristics that are often interpreted as related to gender also involve other demographic and household variables. Finally, gender roles have been undergoing considerable change in response to changes in economic conditions, migration, and disease incidence (particularly HIV), among other factors, all of which have necessitated adaptation of traditional gender roles.  As discussed below, in the survey region many activities, resources, and outcomes are not differentiated solely by gender, and many of the activities and attributes of women and men farmers cannot easily be distinguished.

After examining some of the context of Ugandan agriculture, and comparing Uganda’s experience to those of other regions in Africa and elsewhere, this paper reviews research data from a survey conducted in 1998 to explore the differentiation of agricultural characteristics and activities on the basis of gender and household structure.  Recent trends in production and food security are then examined, also differentiated by gender and household structure.  The conclusions address the current conditions and prospects of the agricultural systems of the area and the significance of gender and household structure to these.

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Abe Goldman is an Associate Professor of Geography at the University of Florida. He has done research on small scale farmers and their adaptations to population growth and agricultural hazards, intensification, and local knowledge and resource management by farmers in areas of Kenya, Nigeria, and Uganda.

Kathleen Heldenbrand received her BA in anthropology at Webster University, St. Louis, MO and her MA in cultural anthropology at the University of Florida, Gainesville focusing on human displacement and resettlement. She has spent the last ten years working in East Africa and in the U.S. She is currently adjunct professor at Webster University, St. Louis and assistant director of The African Refugee Service, located in St. Louis, MO.