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Women in many industrialized countries are all too familiar with the “second shift”—the domestic duties they still perform disproportionately (compared with their husbands) once their formal workday is over.

That phenomenon is also key to understanding women’s work productivity in a developing country like Mali, according to studies led by Jeremy Foltz, a CALS professor of agricultural and applied economics.

A women’s banking cooperative in central Mali uses money saved by the group to provide members loans to buy and sell grains, cloth and livestock—helping women launch successful businesses. Photo courtesy of Jeremy Foltz

More than farm technologies, family structures determine agricultural productivity for Malian women, Foltz found. Understanding both household priorities and labor allocation for Malian women outside of farming was key to Foltz’s research on generating improvements in agricultural productivity.

Foltz received a seed grant from the Global Health Institute at UW–Madison to explore gender, agricultural productivity and sustainability in Mali. One of Foltz’s graduate students, Julie Collins, focused her research in Mali on issues that cause women’s fields to have lower yields than those farmed by men.

Foltz’s and Collins’ research offers a new perspective on women as farmers in Africa. Women’s duties at home and with their children are their first priorities, the researchers found, leaving women with less time for farming.

“These findings have huge implications for how one thinks about women in agriculture in Africa,”says Foltz. “Most of the current thinking is that women are inherently less productive, so we need to get them better technology to help them be better farmers. Our data suggest a different story.”

Women can produce as much as men, Foltz says—and those who do either don’t have many children, or they can call upon more labor in the home.

Time-saving features and solutions, including childcare, could make a big difference, giving women more time to farm. So would basic utilities and appliances. “Certainly things that reduce the amount of time women need to spend on household chores— like running water and gas stoves—would have a positive effect on production,” Foltz says.

Ag economist Jeremy Foltz in Mali.

Creating any new agricultural technologies designed specifically to help women in Mali must acknowledge labor demands in their homes. “Technologies that solve productivity issues for Malian women are not exclusively agricultural,” says Foltz.

Time-saving solutions in the field could also increase Malian women’s crop yields, Foltz says.

“Women I have talked to in Mali are very excited about the possible use of herbicides because weeding labor is the hardest thing to come by in the production system,” says Foltz. “If you can spend money to get rid of your weeds rather than labor time that you don’t have because you are taking care of your kids, you’re ultimately going to save time and improve your productivity.”

Banner photo: Women farmers selling mangos roadside near the capital city, Bamako.

This story was originally published in the Fall 2016 issue of Grow magazine.

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