Women’s empowerment key to improve farming efficiency in Africa

Innovation capacity and empowerment of women are crucial for enabling small-scale farmers in Africa to meet global challenges, according to a doctoral dissertation completed at the University of Helsinki. Climate change, biodiversity loss and population growth are major threats to food security in Africa.

Most of the food consumed in Africa is grown by small-scale farmers. However, farming efficiency is not even close to what it could be.

“This is a problem when it comes to both local and global natural resources. Faced with an increasing global population and the problems related to climate change in the future, we simply cannot afford inefficient use of resources”, says Mila Sell, senior specialist at the Natural Resources Institute Finland (Luke), who defended her thesis at the University of Helsinki on Friday 14 December.

The theme is also a human rights and gender equality issue. All people are entitled to have the same basic rights, including food security. In her research, Sell focussed on small-scale farming in Africa, especially regarding the role of women farmers and making small-scale farming more efficient and productive by supporting their capacity.

Empowerment through education and equality

One of Sell’s main findings in her thesis, consisting of three papers on studies carried out in Ethiopia and Uganda, relates to the importance of education of small-scale farmers. Empowerment of women was also crucial to farming efficiency.

The results indicate that plots farmed by women were less productive than plots managed by men or by men and women together. This is at least partly explained by the greater burden that household work puts on women.

“With regard to efficiency, it was evident that women’s role in the household has a major impact on the premises and possibilities, as far as efficient farm management is concerned. Although women spend a greater proportion of their time on household work, such as cooking and cleaning, the size of the household had a significant impact. The larger the household, the poorer the productivity of farming plots managed by women”, says Sell.

Women working outside the household, on the other hand, contribute to increased farming efficiency. This is in line with earlier results indicating a positive correlation between working outside the household and household wellbeing.

There was also a positive correlation between women empowerment and age, and between gender and educational equality. On the other hand, there was a negative correlation between empowerment of women and the size of the household and the number of children under five. Both factors increase the amount of household work.

Need for local solutions

Papers 1 and 2 were part of the FoodAfrica project for which data was collected from 1,400 households in Uganda. The analyses focused on data on the household members, assets and farming systems as well as empowerment and the role of women in decision-making.

Paper 3 was a part of the Soilman project, which is funded by the Academy of Finland. In the project, an Innovation Platform was established where local farmers in Ethiopia could organise themselves around a specific theme by learning new farming practices.

Read moreA farewell to hun­ger? Ni­tro­gen-fix­ing plants boost health­ier crops in EthiopiaMoreover, the platform provides a forum for discussing other questions and solutions on local challenges.

“We saw a major change especially among the women who participated in the Innovation Platform during its two years. They became much better at asserting themselves and maintaining their points of view on various issues”, Sell says.

In Africa, small-scale farmers account for up to 70 per cent of the population. They represent the poorest and most vulnerable group in terms of food insecurity. Supporting them requires local solutions for the innovation processes of farmers and stakeholders, which in turn requires more empowerment.

“The idea is that the findings made in the studies can be formulated as recommendations to support various tasks, such as helping decision-makers to draw up guidelines for stakeholders in agriculture”, Sell adds. “In theory, it may contribute to actual changes in local policies, for example in relation to education or farming advisory services”.


M.Sc. Mila Sell defended her doctoral dissertation entitled Innovation Capacity and Women Empowerment – Identifying constraints and pathways towards sustainability, improved productivity and livelihood of small-scale farmers in Africa in the Faculty of Agriculture and Forestry, University of Helsinki, on 14 December 2018.

The dissertation is published in the series Agricultural Economics and is also available in electronic format in the E-thesis service.

Contact information:

Mila Sell



Feeding the world's population in an ecologically and socially sustainable way is a great challenge for the future

How to improve food security and income generation for small-scale farmers in Ghana and Uganda?

Sustainable intensification can contribute to this by mitigating climate change, creating better soil fertility and health and improving resilience, while providing nutritious food to humans and feed to cattle. Legumes have the capacity to fix nitrogen when inoculated with rhizobia, which can be used as bio fertilizers.

The three-year long project PASUSI (Participatory Pathways to Sustainable Intensification. Innovation platforms to integrate leguminous crops and inoculants into small-scale agriculture and local value chains) will develop ways to integrate this technology in local farming systems, evaluate the economically viability and risks connected with these crops, and support local bio fertilizers in Ghana and Uganda.

The project team consists of Professor John Sumelius from the Faculty of Agriculture and Forestry, Professor Kristina Lindström and post doc Aregu Aserse from the Faculty of Biological and Environmental Sciences at the University of Helsinki and doctoral student Mila Sell and professor Hilkka Vihinen from the Natural Research Institute of Finland