The Malabo Montpellier Panel’s report ‘BRIDGING THE GAP: Policy Innovations to Put Women at the Center of Food System Transformation in Africa’, was launched at the 12th Malabo Montpellier Forum, which took place online on 8 June 2023. Professor Sheryl Hendriks, Director of the Natural Resources Institute (NRI) and member of the Panel, presented the report.

Women are pivotal to the transformation of Africa’s agrifood systems and to the continent’s employment, growth, and health agendas. Almost two-thirds of women in Africa south of the Sahara (SSA) are employed in agrifood systems as food producers, agrodealers, processors, distributors and traders. In most cases, they are also responsible for sourcing and cooking food for the health and wellbeing of their families. Yet, women’s capacity to contribute to efficient, resilient, and sustainable food systems and their transformation is severely curbed by a variety of social and systemic challenges that are yet to be fully addressed.

Malabo report coverTackling the inequalities facing women is a moral imperative and it also makes economic sense. If women had equal access to resources and services—that is, if agrifood systems were designed in such a way as to work better for women as well as men—women could thrive in their roles in agrifood systems. It is promising to see that several African countries have recognized the importance of empowering women, not only to contribute to a food systems transformation but also to help deliver broader goals of poverty eradication and zero hunger. African countries have signed and ratified several sub-continental, continental and international declarations, conventions, and protocols to promote gender equality and advance women’s economic empowerment. These frameworks are integrated into national constitutions and legislative processes, further embedding gender perspectives within national development priorities.

The first part of the Panel’s report provides an insight into the variety of continental and global frameworks that guide national ambitions and goals. This is followed by a review of the challenges facing greater participation of women in food systems, before showcasing opportunities and existing success stories where government action has resulted in positive simultaneous outcomes for women and food systems. The second part contains four country studies: Ethiopia, Ghana, Rwanda and Togo, considered amongst the most successful and active in terms of improving the outcomes for women in agrifood systems. Each case study reviews the institutional and policy innovations as well as programmatic interventions that contribute towards advancing gender equality among the actors in their agrifood systems.

The report sets out eight key priorities to addressing the gender gap in agriculture and food systems. These include:

  • Consolidating African policy frameworks
  • Implementing and resourcing policies and institutions to meet global, continental, and national commitments on women’s equality and on food systems transformation; governments must make a dedicated effort to implement their pledges to these issues.
  • Increasing political representation to address deeply rooted, systemic inequalities and to ensure that policies are designed in a way that meets the specific needs of women; women must be equally represented at all levels of government and decision-making processes, and in food systems services.
  • Centering women in food systems to empower women and strengthen their agency and role as changemakers in food systems. There is an urgent need for deliberate programming of interventions that promote equality and equity across all aspects of food systems and also promote sustainable food systems growth and transformation.
  • Fostering inclusive behavioral change to accelerate the transition to non-discriminatory governance structures at all levels. Programming interventions must also sensitize boys and men to the challenges that undermine the empowerment of girls and women.
  • Tailoring products and services for women to meet the specific economic and social needs and circumstances of women and making these easily accessible given current constraints of women’s time use and mobility.
  • Stepping up STEM (Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) to sustainably empower women in the food system. Education and training for girls and women on pertinent subjects must be readily accessible.
  • Collecting data for accountability

In responding to the report presentation, H.E. Assia Ben Aalah Alaoui, Ambassador at Large to the King of Morocco and Co-Chair of the Malabo-Montpellier Forum, said: ‘Empowering women to play an equal role in food systems is a moral imperative. This report is not only of importance to women but also to men. To our male colleagues and partners, who play an important role in ensuring lasting gender equality, I encourage you to listen, reflect and step-up’.

She commented that in a rapidly changing global context, there is an urgent need for conversations about this imperative. Inequality still prevails– from education to what women and girls can wear in public, from the gender pay gap, to leadership positions in science, business and politics. ‘Yet, we women have not been waiting for permission to exercise our political rights. We are equal members of society and have been leading actions for change where needed.’ In most of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, women’s participation in the labour force has declined by 24% since 2020 (compared to 4% for men). But there have been some tangible improvements. ‘Women’s rights have progressed in Morocco in recent times, especially through the constitution of 2011 with its ambitions for gender equality, and concrete steps have been taken, but I hope the debate about improving the legislation will enhance women’s rights and speed up implementation. By 2025, all Moroccan citizens will benefit from global social security coverage. This will help bridge the gap. Some concrete gains have been recorded, particularly in education, including for girls in rural areas.’

Dr Ismahane Elouafi, Chief Scientist of the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations said: ‘67% of women in Africa are involved in agrifood systems – deriving their livelihoods from the agrifood system. We better engage them more!’ She noted that transformation can only happen if you engage and empower women to engage, including investing more in the education of girls and in infrastructure, including digital tools and connectivity for women.

Dr Anna Lartey, Professor of Nutrition at the University of Ghana, emphasised the importance of women’s access to formal education and its association with better nutrition, for women in their own right and for children. Mrs Ndidi Okonkwo Nwuneli, Founder of Africa Food Changemakers noted that investing in women entrepreneurs is critical to food value chains, in terms of fund allocations, mentoring and support. Dr Dorothy Okello -Dean of the School of Engineering, Makerere University focused on the provision of digital opportunities for women, particularly in rural areas.  

The contributors to the panel discussion agreed on the importance of women’s participation. Yet, as Dr Agnes Kalibata, President of AGRA (Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa) reminded the participants of the session, ‘Only 17% of science leadership are women. Gender inclusion is not part of many policies. Less than 15% of extensionists are women. We have made progress, but the challenge is huge. Women are not getting the extension service they need. There is still a 34% gap in access to finance’.

Dr Kalibata stressed that there is need for the transformation of the formal and informal structures that constrain change and the social norms that inhibit women’s leadership. She implored: ‘Allow women to rise earlier – this will only happen if political systems allow it. Still today, women’s needs and preferences are left off the discussion table. Research that speaks to what women care about does not get the attention it should. Women leaders can advance women’s issues.’

In closing the session, Professor Joachim von Braun, the Panel’s co-Chair, emphasised the role of the report and the diverse success stories documented from the four countries, which can inform national pathways for strengthening women’s position and transforming food systems. He emphasised that respect for women should go beyond their role as mothers. ‘We must respect, and work for respect, for all women and girls as equals’, said Prof von Braun.

The full report: Bridging the gap: Policy Innovations to put women at the center of food systems transformation in Africa  

Executive summary:

Case studies: Ethiopia, Ghana, Rwanda, Togo

Recording of the Forum:

Report promotional video:

Press release: