By Godwin Atser
More action against sexual violence, workplace discrimination, and demands for a higher quota for women in key positions in the corporate and political landscape were perhaps the most discussed issues for this year’s International Women Day (IWD) celebration.
Though all of these are important, one must not forget the agony, pains and trauma the cassava woman farmer is facing in Africa trying to control weeds with some of them breaking their backs.
In context, cassava has grown in importance transiting from a subsistence/food crop to an industrial/cash crop. This transition has opened up vast lands for cassava cultivation. However, the expansion in cultivation of cassava has not fully embraced mechanization and therefore manual labor still dominates the cassava farming landscape.
Women being major stakeholders in rural communities play a significant role in cassava production and processing. To control weeds, for instance, women contribute about 90% of the hand-weeding, and in some cases where the burden is huge and unbearable, children are withdrawn from school to assist in weeding, an action that compromises the future of the home.
Besides, hoes and cutlasses are the major tools that women use in controlling weeds. These implements demand that women must bend their backs for between 200-500 hours annually to clear the weeds on the field and prevent economic losses in cassava fields especially in fields infested with difficult weeds. In instances where the woman is nursing a baby and has to back the child, the negative health impact of weeding on the waist and chest of the woman farmer can be better imagined.
This sad reality which the African woman farmer faces on a yearly basis has never gained sympathy nor desired attention from policymakers or donors, rather weeding is a ‘new normal,’ and even the farmers who face this uphill task hardly recognize it as a challenge. Several policies or programs initiated by governments in Africa either downplay or have never given enough attention to weed control. On the contrary, more attention is paid to issues such as the development of improved varieties, procurement of fertilizers, and value addition or processing. But without effective weed control, the gains of genetic improvement can hardly be realized. In cassava for instance, if a farmer fails to control weeds during the first 16 weeks of the crop, they can hardly harvest cassava roots from the field. Research evidence attributes Africa’s low productivity in cassava fields partly to poor weed management. While Asia records cassava yield of 30-40 tons per hectare, Africa and Nigeria in particular is still grappling with an average yield 12-13 tons per ha.
The greater implication of this scenario is that Africa’s dream for a Green Revolution lies ahead in a distant future and emancipating the continent from the grip of hunger and poverty needs more efforts and collaboration.
In spite of this gloomy picture, the IWD offers us the opportunity to reflect and examine what options can bring about change and make a difference in the lives of women in agriculture.
In this reflection, the Cassava Weed Management Project holds promise in bringing about change and transformation in the lives of women farmers and children. The project which involves researchers from the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) with partners from National Root Crops Research Institute (NRCRI), Umudike, Abia State; Federal University of Agriculture Abeokuta, Ogun State; and the University of Agriculture Makurdi, Benue State is for the first time assessing sustainable weed management technologies in cassava systems in Nigeria.
The five-year project aims to develop integrated weed control measures that would alleviate the burden of weeding and put more money in the pockets of farmers especially women who are in the majority of 70 percent of rural dwellers in Africa.
The attainment of the goals of this project will certainly bring about change in the livelihood of the African woman farmer who lives on less than $2 dollars a day, and produces about 50 percent of food needs in the developing countries.
Godwin Atser is the Communication & Knowledge Exchange Expert with the IITA Cassava Weed Management Project