Africa: Can We Have Our Food, and Equality Too

Dar es Salaam — The world faces a daunting challenge: securing food for a growing global population while navigating the complexities of climate crisis and entrenched gender inequalities. These issues are deeply intertwined, with women – who play a crucial role in global agriculture and food systems – often bearing the brunt of climate disruptions.

To shed light on this critical issue, allAfrica’s Melody Chironda interviewed Dr. Debisi Araba, a leading voice on gender and food security. Dr. Araba, a visiting researcher at Imperial College London and an expert on the Malabo-Montpellier Panel offers a unique perspective on the interconnected challenges of food security, gender equality, and climate crisis. While complex, Dr. Araba finds hope in the growing awareness of these connections.

Calls for a cultural shift

Dr. Araba acknowledges the positive impact of policies promoting gender equality. However, he’s also witnessed these policies being “unbundled” later on, highlighting their vulnerability to political shifts. He added that witnessing hard-won policies, like gender equity programs in Nigeria, dismantled with a flick of the pen. Dr. Araba now argues for a more profound transformation – a cultural shift.

“Philosophically,” he argued, “we shouldn’t see policies as the end goal on our journey towards transformation. True gender equity requires systemic change, not just policy enactment”.  “Because almost as quickly as we can design policies, we can unwind them. Success is hard fought to win, but also easily lost,” he added.

“Legislative processes can undo years of advocacy and evidence-building.”

He recognizes the existence of “entrenched stakeholders” who resist change because they fear losing power or control (“they fear loss”). He suggests this fear stems from uncertainty about a more equitable future (“weary about what this brave new world will look like”).

“Leadership is not a noun. It’s not who you are. Leadership is a verb; it’s what you do,” he said. “It’s important that all stakeholders see themselves as leaders advocating for the same thing.” “This collective effort is crucial to narrowing the gender gap in Africa,” Dr. Araba added, “We shouldn’t be resting on our laurels just because we’ve passed a policy or law”.

“Policies are a stepping stone, not the finish line,” he said.

He referenced Ralph Waldo Emerson’s quote about institutions being the “lengthened shadow of one man.” “When such leadership inspires collective action, it sets a new direction,” Dr. Araba explained, “That’s leadership”.

The key to cultural change lies in sustained action.

“The transition and why culture is important is rather that when an action is persistent and continues over time, it becomes cultural.” “When such actions persist over time, they become cultural norms, shaping how things are done. This cultural shift ultimately sustains progress.”

The gendered impact of climate crisis

According to Dr. Araba, true leaders confront the status quo and force us to confront uncomfortable truths and injustices. A prime example is the interconnected crisis of climate crisis, food security, and nutrition, which disproportionately burdens women. This complex problem, Dr. Araba argues, has elements of “counterintuitiveness.”

Dr. Araba emphasized the critical need to address gender equality within climate action plans. “Women are disproportionately impacted by climate crisis,” he argued. He explained how climate crisis exacerbates food insecurity: “Less food is produced, or agricultural productivity goes down.” He implies that this creates a heavier burden for women, who often play a crucial role in food production and household food security.

He elaborated on the climate crisis’ disproportionate impact on women, particularly regarding food security. “Beyond reduced food production, women face another challenge: the decline in the quality and nutrient content of food,” he said. Dr. Araba explained how rising carbon dioxide levels reduce crops’ ability to absorb nutrients from the soil. This results in a double burden: “So we’re not only reducing the amount of food,” he explained, “but it reduces the quality and nutrition content of that food .”

He then connected this phenomenon to the specific vulnerabilities faced by women and girls. “This decline in nutrient quality disproportionately impacts women and girls,” he argued. He emphasized the crucial role women play in food systems, saying, “Women are the largest group involved in agriculture and food systems, their participation outweighing men’s. “This involvement, Dr. Araba explained, spans the entire food chain, “not just in production, but across the value chain, all the way to consumers .”

Dr. Araba warns of a vicious cycle triggered by climate crisis. As climate crisis disrupts agricultural production, it leads to hunger. This hunger, he argues, can then “fuel conflict,” creating a devastating domino effect. He points to the shrinking of Lake Chad in Nigeria as an example. This environmental crisis, linked to climate crisis, has been associated with a rise in conflict and insecurity, disproportionately impacting women and girls who are already more vulnerable.

He also painted a grim picture of how climate crisis’s negative effects can cascade.

Reduced food production, he argued, leads to hunger, which itself can fuel conflict. He underscored this stark connection by concluding, “Globally, a staggering 614 million women and girls are directly impacted by conflict. Climate crisis, reduced agricultural productivity, hunger, conflict – you can draw a clear line between them all, highlighting how women and girls bear the brunt.”

Policymakers, donors, financiers, businesses, and activists all need to step up. Instead of isolated policies, Dr. Araba argues for comprehensive strategies and plans that address the challenges posed by climate crisis. We’ve entered a new era, the Anthropocene, where human actions significantly impact the environment. Since completely stopping climate crisis is a tall order, Dr. Araba proposes a two-pronged approach: reducing emissions (mitigation) and adapting to the changing climate. The urgency is undeniable. 2023 holds the record for the hottest year ever, and agriculture, a vital sector in Africa, is particularly vulnerable. Dr. Araba stresses the need to not only maintain but even increase agricultural productivity, especially considering Africa’s existing yield gaps compared to other regions.

A look at successful policies

While acknowledging the inherent challenges of public policy innovation, especially in democracies, Dr. Araba offers a surprising perspective: “We should be kind to governments.” He recognizes the immense pressure to avoid failure, unlike the “fail fast” culture of startups. After all, in politics, “if you fail, you’re kicked out at the next election.” Despite these hurdles, Dr. Araba remains optimistic. His work with the Malabo Montpellier Panel resulted in a report highlighting successful policy innovations for gender equality in agriculture, offering a beacon of hope for future progress.

The report examined case studies in four African countries: Rwanda, Togo, Ghana, and Ethiopia.

“These four countries were selected based on domestic policies aimed at bridging the gender gap in agriculture and food systems,” he said. “While other countries were included in the analysis, these four stood out for meeting all the criteria for in-depth case studies.”

Dr. Araba elaborated on a successful policy example from Togo’s National Gender Equity and Equality Policy.

“One example from the case study was in Togo, where the national gender equity and equality policy, enacted in 2011, has demonstrably improved women’s access to finance,” he explained. This policy resulted in a significant increase, from 45% to 66%, between 2015 and 2020. Dr. Araba highlighted, “Women’s access to finance increased from 45% to 66%.”

“This policy’s positive influence continued in 2022, shaping the government’s gender-responsive budgeting approach. This exemplifies how national policies can influence broader strategies and decisions,” he said.

“The Malabo-Montpellier panel hopes to amplify such successful policies and foster a peer-learning environment among African countries,” he said. “This way, other countries designing their policies can learn and adapt, not simply copy”. “The focus is on transferable knowledge, not one-size-fits-all solutions.”

Feeding 10 Billion – Can Africa rise to the challenge?

Dr. Araba framed the challenge of gender equality in agriculture within the broader context of a growing global population: “By 2050, we need to figure out how we’re feeding 10 billion people,” he said. Africa’s role in this is essential: “If Africa doesn’t rise to the challenge of increasing its productivity, the world will face significant challenges in ensuring that 10 billion people have healthy, safe, nutritious food by 2050.” Dr. Araba’s call to action is clear: the need for strategic planning and adaptation to climate crisis, particularly in the agricultural sector, to ensure global food security in the future.

“Farmers, government, investors, entrepreneurs, civil society activists, research institutions – everyone’s got their role to play,” he said.

Dr. Araba offered a cautiously optimistic perspective on progress toward gender equality and climate action in the food system. He highlighted a recent development at the UNFCCC Conference of Parties (COP28) where “agriculture and food systems are now a mainstream topic of the conversation.” This suggests a growing recognition of the link between climate crisis and food security. Dr. Araba sees this as a positive step towards a more comprehensive approach that considers “the nexus between climate crisis, agriculture, food systems, nutrition, and health, and also how it impacts women and girls.”

He also pointed to the UN Food Systems Summit in 2021 as another milestone, where a series of national-level dialogues involved each country in developing food system transformation pathways. These pathways served as a compendium of stakeholders’ hopes and aspirations for change within agriculture and food systems – outlining what and how things need to evolve.

Call to action

Dr. Araba urged stakeholders across various sectors, from policymakers to philanthropists, to move beyond rhetoric and implement the food system transformation plans that have been established. These plans require not “just words”, but “concrete actions and financial backing”.

He expressed his gratitude to the Women Lift Health Global Conference organizers, acknowledging the privilege of being invited, and urged the international community to prioritize gender equality and climate action for global food security.

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