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African women in agriculture drive climate adaptation

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or views of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation.

In this latest piece from members of our Now Generation Network (NGN), Mpilo Shabangu from South Africa writes about how African women in agriculture play a key role in climate adaptation. 

Over 100 million people are facing catastrophic levels of food insecurity in Africa alone. According to ReliefWeb, “in Africa, people face the challenges of either too little water or too much water – cyclic patterns of drought to floods to droughts – impacting vulnerable groups either by floods or by famine due to profound impacts of climate change.”  

As outlined in the Mo Ibrahim Foundation’s recent research spotlight, climate change is one of the primary drivers of hunger and food insecurity in Africa. Women across the continent are adapting to the challenges presented by the climate crisis by leveraging their power to take up space in all areas of the agricultural value chain. Women comprise approximately 70% of Africa’s agricultural workforce. This is important to note, because money in the hands of women stretches further, helping to build families and communities, and underpinning growth at all levels of the economy.  

A key concern of mine is that women’s contribution to Africa’s economic growth is underestimated, undervalued and underutilised. In fact, according to the World Bank, Africa is the only region in the world where more women than men choose to become entrepreneurs. In my home country, South Africa, the increase in women entrepreneurs within agriculture serves as a form of adaptation to the negative impacts of climate change. Climate adaptation means taking action to prepare for and adjust to both current and predicted future impacts.

For example, in the informal settlement of Alexandra in South Africa, women have taken their destiny into their own hands by starting gardening cooperatives (co-ops) for their financial sustainability and self-reliance. These women have transformed a former dumping ground into a thriving area, producing a range of crops sold at a nearby makeshift stall. This initiative benefits these women’s families and the wider community and serves as a clear example of African women’s valuable contribution to the continent’s agriculture sector.  

The disproportionate impact of climate change on women magnifies gender inequities. Their roles as primary caregivers, and providers of food and fuel, make them more vulnerable when flooding and droughts occur. And when women are threatened by climate hazards, their children’s physical and psychological development is also impacted. 

With these challenges in mind, the potential of women entrepreneurs in Africa, particularly in agriculture, is encouraging. It is fundamental that they should have a seat at the table when creating solutions to help the continent manage the impacts of climate change. 

My plea to world leaders at COP26 is not to overlook the experiences of African women in agriculture who are leading the charge for climate adaptation in their communities. We should not only ensure that their voices are heard but that they have the resources to thrive.