Women Farmers Toil to Expand Africa's Food Supply

Megan Rowling, Reuters: "This year, agricultural experts have renewed calls for policy makers to pay more attention to small-scale women farmers such as Gondwe, who grow up to 80 percent of crops for food consumption in Africa."


by: Megan Rowling, Reuters


Women in the Democratic Republic of Congo working on a farming cooperative. (Photo: Giacomo Irazzi / Panos)

London - Like many African women, Mazoe Gondwe is her family's main food provider. Lately, she has struggled to farm her plot in Malawi due to unpredictable rains that are making her hard life even tougher.

"Now we can't just depend on rain-fed agriculture, so we plant two crops - one watered with rain and one that needs irrigating," she explained. "But irrigation is back-breaking and can take four hours a day."

Gondwe, flown by development agency ActionAid to U.N. climate change talks in Poland this month, said she wanted access to technology that would cut the time it takes to water her crops and till her farm garden. She would also be glad of help to improve storage facilities and seed varieties.

"As a local farmer, I know what I need and I know what works. I grew up in the area and I know how the system is changing," Gondwe said.

This year, agricultural experts have renewed calls for policy makers to pay more attention to small-scale women farmers such as Gondwe, who grow up to 80 percent of crops for food consumption in Africa.

After decades in the political wilderness, farming became a hot topic this year when international food prices hit record highs in June, sharply boosting hunger around the world. The proportion of development aid spent on agriculture has dropped to just 4 percent from a peak of 17 percent in 1982.

Former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has called for women to be at the heart of a "policy revolution" to boost small-scale farming in Africa.

Women have traditionally shouldered the burden of household food production both there and in Asia, while men tend to focus on growing cash crops or migrate to cities to find paid work.

Yet women own a tiny percentage of the world's land - some experts say as little as 2 percent - and receive only around 5 percent of farming information services and training.

"Today the African farmer is the only farmer who takes all the risks herself: no capital, no insurance, no price supports, and little help - if any - from governments. These women are tough and daring and resilient, but they need help," Annan told an October conference on fighting hunger.

A new toolkit explaining how to tackle gender issues in farming development projects, published by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), highlights the potential returns of improving women's access to technology, land and finance.

In Ghana, for example, if women and men had equal land rights and security of tenure, women's use of fertilizer and profits per hectare would nearly double.

In Burkina Faso, Kenya and Tanzania, giving women entrepreneurs the same inputs and education as men would boost business revenue by up to 20 percent. And in Ivory Coast, raising women's income by $10 brings improvements in children's health and nutrition that would require a $110 increase in men's income.

"The knowledge is there, the know-how is there, but the world - and here I'm talking rich and poor - doesn't apply it as much as it could," said Marcela Villarreal, director of FAO's gender, equity and rural employment division.


Many African governments have introduced formal laws making women and men equal, but have troubling enforcing them where they clash with customary laws giving property ownership rights to men, she said.

Often if a woman's husband dies, she has little choice but to marry one of his relatives so she can keep farming her plot and feeding her children, Villarreal said. But if a widow is HIV positive, she might be chased off her land.

In Malawi, FAO is working with parliamentarians and village chiefs to let rural women know they are legally able to hold land titles. They are given wind-up radios so they can listen to farming shows in local languages and taught how to write a will.

"People continue to think that doing things for women is part of a welfare programme and doing things for men - big investments or credit - that is agriculture, that is GDP-related," Villarreal said.

"Women continue not to be seen as part of the productive potential of a country."

One powerful woman trying to change that is Agnes Kalibata, Rwanda's minister of state for agriculture. She said government land reform and credit programmes specifically target struggling women farmers - many of whom are bringing up children alone after their husbands were killed in the 1994 genocide.

This has helped raise their incomes, leading to better nutrition, health and education for their children, Kalibata said. Women are also getting micro-credit loans, which they use to access markets and cooperatives or set up small businesses, such as producing specialty coffee for export.

"They are not like rocket scientists, they are women from the general population who finally feel empowered that they can come out and do some of these things," explained Kalibata.

In the private sector, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has decided to put women at the center of its agricultural development programme by attaching conditions to grants. It no longer finances projects that ignore gender issues, and it requires women to be involved in their design and implementation.

Catherine Bertini, a senior fellow at the foundation and professor of public administration at Syracuse University, said aid donors had not spent enough on support for women farmers.

"You can find the rhetoric but it's a limited number of people who actually walk the walk," she said.

Bertini, who headed the U.N. World Food Programme in the 1990s, said policy makers could best be persuaded to focus on women farmers by playing up the economic benefits rather than talking about gender equality.

"You convince people to do it because it's the most practical way to increase productivity and income to women," she said.


(Editing by Megan Goldin.)




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Duchess of Carnegie, 96, refuses to leave home

Story Highlights
  • Editta Sherman has lived above Carnegie Hall since 1947
  • She and other rent-control tenants are being evicted for Hall renovations
  • Sherman photographed huge stars from Salvador Dali to Marlene Dietrich
  • Only one thing will convince the grandmother of 25 to leave: $10 million

By Ashley Fantz

(CNN) -- Editta Sherman has celebrated more than half a century's worth of new years in her palatial studio apartment above New York's Carnegie Hall. But it's unlikely the celebrated portrait photographer will be raising her glass there next year.

Known as the Duchess of Carnegie, the 96-year-old came home a few days ago to find an eviction notice on her door.

"I thought, oh, what is this? Are you kidding me that they are really going to send a woman like me down the street just like that? Have me scurry away without a fight," she said, delivering a whooping cackle, punctuated with a grandmother's tsk tsk.

"Oh, no, that's not what I am going to do. They'll have to take me out of here with their bare hands."

The city of New York wants to renovate the space above Carnegie Hall, where Marlon Brando once lived and where Sherman and five other renters, including iconic New York Times' photographer Bill Cunningham, have enjoyed rent-stabilized bliss since Frank Sinatra cut his first demo.

Sherman pays $650 a month for her studio, a drool-inducing space basked in natural light with floor-to-ceiling windows. An enormous skylight hangs over bold, black-and-white tiled floors; a cast-iron circular staircase leads to a loft stuffed with props.

Since last year when Carnegie Hall announced its facelift, 43 residents have lost their battle to stay, and one rent-controlled tenant has vacated, according to Hall spokeswoman Synneve Carlino. The push to renovate came from the Hall's chairman Sanford Weill who wants to expand the education classrooms for more than 115,000 music and art students.

Weill's son-in-law, Natan Bibliowicz, has been hired to design the studio spaces above the hall in a $150 million expansion, and taxpayers will reportedly foot part of the bill because New York state granted $5 million to cover design and planning costs, according to the New York Times.

Carnegie Hall has offered to pay for the rent-control tenants' relocation expenses and move them to apartments which are "equivalent or better" in the neighborhood. The Hall also is offering to pay the difference in rent to each of those tenants for the rest of their lives.

"We have asked Editta to come and look at spaces with us," Carlino told CNN.

But Sherman and her like-minded neighbors are not budging.

There is only one scenario that might work, the grandmother of 25 said.

"They can pay me $10 million. I'm part of history," she said. "You want to tell me they don't have enough rooms? They have a building of rooms. This place is history, and I think Carnegie, the people running it, I don't think they think about that."

Dressed in a purple zebra-cuffed shirt and black jumpsuit, Sherman ambles around her enormous studio with the sprightliness of a woman half her age. She holds up a photograph of herself with Salvador Dali, her aubergine-painted eyebrows animated as she tells stories about the famous faces who have dropped by over the years -- Andy Warhol, Henry Fonda, Eva Gabor, Tyrone Power, Carl Sandburg, Paul Newman.

"With Salvador, he had an exhibit nearby, you know, and I went there to meet him and we just hit it off. So he came back to my place and I took some pictures," she said. "He wanted to buy my (stair) railing which was pure bronze then, with some engravings from Paramount. I told him it was quite expensive and he said he'd have to think about it."

Yul Brenner brought Marlene Dietrich by once in the 1950s during a time when the two Hollywood stars were reportedly having an affair, Sherman said.

"They were just so sweet," she said. "Yul was playful, and she was quiet."

In true Warhol style, Sherman photographed the pop genius as he was photographing her.

Warhol's portrait sits next to the hundreds of other portraits piled up in rows in her studio. Sherman has hundreds of letters from Cary Grant -- a long correspondence of them trying, in vain, to get together for a portrait session.

"I never thought that taking photos would be valuable," she said. "I did it to earn a living and because I liked it."

Sherman's career took off when she got a job in New York casinos which hosted welcome home parties for World War II soldiers. Her husband, Harold Sherman, who was an inventor and proprietor of photographic technology, convinced the management of the casinos to let his wife take photos of the celebrities who entertained there, she said.

Sherman had a way of putting celebrities at ease when they posed for her, a gift she picked up from her father who was a photographer. And soon word of her work buzzed among New York's jet set. The Shermans and their five children decided they needed a place to live in New York.

While many were running for the tranquil promise of the suburbs, she wanted to be in the middle of it all. She spied a full page ad in the New York Times in 1947. It read: "Live and work in Carnegie Hall." Rent was $225 a month.

"It wasn't a big deal at the time, and when I saw the place I thought that it would be big enough for me and five children," she recalled.

But the studio was much larger and more ideal for photography than she ever imagined. Vogue magazine used to borrow it for shoots. In the 1960s, Sherman shot many images of the supermodel Veruschka, a Prussian emigre whose father, a German count, was executed for trying to assassinate Hitler. A celebrated muse of Dali, Veruschka was a pleasure to photograph, Sherman said.

"She had such a beauty," Sherman said. "I believe youth and beauty are all in how you live."

Sherman has space to live, at least for now. She occupies an entire floor. Her children are all grown and long moved out. Her husband died in his 50s from diabetes. She spends most days shooting photos and jumping rope to stay fit.

"I feel lost sometimes that I'm the only one on this floor now," she said. "But, you see, people get tired of fighting. They lived here, and they could live somewhere else, so they did.

"But I am different. I have this business here," Sherman said. "This is who I am, where I live, and I won't let someone change that."

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