The 3F (Food-Fuel-Finance) Crises in Africa: Women at the Forefront

Melanne Verveer
Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues 
Video Statement for Femmes Africa Solidarite Conference
Washington, DC
December 12, 2011

On behalf of the United States State Department, it gives me great pleasure to extend greetings to all of you gathered in Dakar. I truly wish that I were able to join all of you in person because this is an issue with great consequences for all of us – wherever we may live. I’d like to especially thank the Executive Director of Femmes Africa Solidarite, Bineta Diop, whom I have known and respected for many years. I agree with Time that she surely deserves a place among the 100 most influential people in the world for her outstanding leadership on these issues that affect women so critically. It is also wonderful that this conference has welcomed many high-level representatives from government, international bodies, and civil society – because this is a challenge too large for any of us to solve alone. Addressing food, fuel, and finance in Africa requires the best thinking and collective action.

In much of Africa, women are the backbone of the economy. In some places they comprise the majority of small hold farmers. There is a very strong economic argument to be made on economic and productivity grounds for focusing on investments in women in agriculture – and yet women farmers do not have equal access to resources. This significantly limits their potential in being more successful farmers, growing their incomes, supporting their families and in enhancing greater agricultural productivity. Women are often at a severe disadvantage when it comes to owning land or having land tenure rights, securing livestock, accessing the finance that they require, being involved in decision making and receiving extension and other training services and resources that will grow their output.

Secretary Clinton has described the harsh challenges that women farmers confront in too many places. "She lives in a rural village and farms a piece of land that she does not own. She rises before dawn and walks miles to collect water – if there is water to be found. She works all day in a field, sometimes with a baby on her back. If she’s lucky, drought, blight or pests don’t destroy her crops, and she raises enough to feed her family—and maybe has some left over to sell. But there’s no road to the nearest market. Moreover, her work is not counted in many economies 'as economically active employment'."

Several years ago, when I was traveling with then-First Lady Hillary Clinton, a government official was going on and on about how women in his country have no role in the country’s economy. Mrs. Clinton stopped him and said, "Sir, as far as the eye can see, (we were traveling in a van), women are bent over with children on their backs doing the farming, carrying wood, carrying water…if they all stopped but for a day, your country would shut down."

The Food and Agriculture organization for the first time devoted their annual State of Agriculture report to the vital role of women in agriculture. Data shows that when women are provided with equal resources, they can produce yields equal to those of men, if not more. Closing the gender gap and providing women with the same resources as men could increase their individual yields by 20-30%; that would in turn improve agricultural production in many countries between 2.5-4% and reduce the number of undernourished people by 100-150 million globally. We know from the World Economic Forum’s annual Gender Gap Report that in the countries that are closer to closing the gap between men and women on four metrics, including economic empowerment, those countries are more economically competitive and prosperous. Gender equality is smart economics.

I have seen firsthand how, with proper training and networking opportunities, women farmers have organized associations to promote greater productivity, successful markets and effective advocacy for better policies and programs. But we must do our part to support them. Food security is a foreign policy priority for the United States. The Obama Administration has developed a major initiative called Feed the Future, to advance food security worldwide. We are integrating gender into all aspects of this initiative because of the significant role women play in agriculture and the persistent economic constraints they face. We are working to improve and expand the involvement and participation of women at all levels of decision-making and to ensure they have equal access to a range of resources they need.

Another key focus of Feed the Future is to reduce under-nutrition which also requires we look at women as critical actors. We are working to ensure that our development efforts are carefully considered and our decisions based on strong evidence. We need to engage in rigorous monitoring and evaluation. To do so successfully – to ensure that we can measure and understand the impact of our work – we are committed to collecting sex-disaggregated statistics.

In the 20 Feed the Future focus countries – the majority in Africa – we will work with governments and partners to ensure that we have the data we need to understand the scale and nature of the problem and establish a baseline against which to measure our progress. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is a global leader in agriculture research and statistics, and they are an integral part of our Feed the Future team. We will be collecting statistics on 33 gender-sensitive indicators, including counting the value of agriculture loans received by women, the number of women producers using improved technologies or management practices and the number receiving help to develop their agriculture businesses. By disaggregating data by sex, we will be able to effectively analyze the changes in the status, participation and outcomes of investments in women relative to men in the agriculture sector. There is much we can and must do to enable women farmers to access the resources they need. Women farmers deserve nothing less, and when we close the resource gap, they and their families will be far better off and more food will be produced to address the critical food shortages in Africa and beyond.

Secretary Clinton launched the Global Alliance for Clean Cook Stoves a year ago. Since that time, seven African nations have joined the Alliance, and I hope all of your governments will join as well. It is a public-private partnership bringing together governments, NGOs and businesses to save lives, improve livelihoods, empower women, and combat environmental pollution by creating a thriving global market for clean and efficient cook stoves. Three billion people – most of them women – cook the same way they have for hundreds of years: on an open fire or crude stove with solid fuels such as wood, crop residues, or coal. Women spend up to 20 hours a week collecting this fuel – hours that might be better spent caring for and educating children, cultivating land, or building a business. Moreover, these inefficient cook stoves create smoke conditions that cause an estimated 2 million deaths a year – most of them mothers and young children.

The Cook Stoves Alliance has a goal of "100 by ’20" – 100 million homes adopting clean and efficient stoves and fuels by 2020. These technologies can reduce fuel consumption, which lessens the fuel collection burdens women and girls face, reduce exposure to dangerous cook stove smoke with terrible health consequences, and reduce environmental pollution. Building this market will also provide economic development opportunities for women who sell, distribute, or manufacture clean cook stoves. We hope all nations represented here will become vital partners in the Global Alliance for Clean Cook Stoves. It is a win-win strategy.

I will be in Durban, South Africa, for the international climate change discussions, working with leaders from around the world to ensure that women’s voices are fully heard in these talks. This message must be carried to all the meetings leading up to Rio, and in the actions our governments take to implement these goals. Women are most severely impacted by climate change, but they are also agents for change both in adaptation and mitigation. Women have a critical role to play. We look forward to working with all of you in the weeks and months ahead. When the status of women improves, agricultural production increases, poverty decreases, and nutrition improves. Unleashing women’s potential by closing the gender gap is a win-win strategy. So I wish you a wonderful conference and thank you for all that you do for this fight.