Gender, Household Composition, and Adoption of Soil Fertility Technologies: A Study of Women Rice Farmers in Southern Senegal

by Amy J. Sullivan


If as claimed by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations women grow up to eighty percent of the food produced in Africa, then targeting them during research, technology development and dissemination makes sense. In order to do so, it is necessary to recognize that not all women farmers are the same with respect to their access to resources, or their goals and motivation. This research shows how an additional factor—household composition—can determine which subgroups of women farmers can adopt technologies aimed at increasing their productivity, under what conditions.

Adoption by farmers is the ultimate test of research and technology in agricultural development, and should be the ultimate goal as well.  To meet this goal these processes need to be designed and carried out with end users in mind.  This means understanding the target audience before researching and developing new technologies.  In Africa, this means focusing on women farmers and understanding their livelihood options and resource allocation decisions.  In addition, it means exploring household composition as a key factor that can increase or decrease the likelihood of adoption of technologies by women farmers.

Smallholder farmers manage factors of production—land, labor, and capital—under conditions where the only constant is change.  Better than anyone, they are able to identify and explain the defining variables, or drivers, of these seemingly unpredictable and diverse systems. The keys to discovering and decoding diversity lie with the farmers, men and women, and are often hidden within their objectives and motivation.

Diversity in livelihood activities, or systems, examined at the national level may indicate activities chosen based upon biophysical, ecological or policy differences.  Diversity between livelihood systems at the community or regional level may indicate strategies chosen based upon cultural differences. Diversity among households within the same livelihood system can indicate livelihood strategies chosen based upon household composition, a determinant of labor availability and consumption requirements. Thus efforts to improve conditions in any system must begin with an awareness of what exists, where farmers want to be, which avenues fit within their norms and are acceptable to them, and what resources their households can devote to these endeavors. In this case, livelihood systems are defined as the range of activities to which a household has access in the effort to meet their needs, while livelihood strategies are the specific resource allocation decisions made by each household over time.

This research was undertaken to understand the nature and specifics of livelihood systems of Fulbe farmers in southern Senegal and their strategies, practices, and activities. The following case study illustrates that once a specific livelihood system is delineated, there remains a range of activities women farmers have available to them.  It then illustrates the role of household composition in determining livelihood strategies pursued by women farmers.  Finally, this paper suggests that to correctly identify and effectively address the needs of women farmers, each member of the development community (policy makers, researchers, and field workers) must work with them in mind.

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