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'We don't know what they do behind the wall': Zambian women miss out on help

China is setting up agricultural centres across Africa, but in Zambia – where the majority of farmers are female smallholders – few women get the chance to learn


On the highway heading towards Chongwe, 15km south-east of Lusaka, the red Chinese lettering, high flagpoles and gleaming modern architecture of the Zambia Chinese Agricultural Technology Demonstration Centre (ZATDC) stand out amid the vast fields of maize.

It is one of 25 such centres built across the continent as part of a grand plan to bring agricultural training to local people, helping them produce better crops with higher yields, so that food security is improved for everyone.

That should be great news for small-scale farmers around here, who – as in many African countries – are mostly women. Makulate Ngoma, 47, sole provider for her seven grandchildren, has a little plot of land. “I became a farmer because I didn’t want to buy maize meal, that’s why I grow crops. But you can’t survive on farming. It’s only enough for day to day.”

Every day, Ngoma travels to Chongwe town, a collection of lean-to shacks and dilapidated stores strung along the road. Stalls of rickety tables hold small pyramids of onions, tomatoes, bananas, and peanuts, watched by women who have planted, grew, weeded and watered each plant.

Despite the ZATDC being so close, Ngoma was unaware of its existence. None of the other stallholders had heard of it either. “We’d like to get training, but we haven’t seen the Chinese, and government hasn’t told us anything. The government doesn’t support us in loans or help us be better farmers,” said Ngoma. The other women nodded in agreement.

Debora Addu, a mother of seven children, mills sorghum. Photograph: Albert Gonzalez Farran/AFP/Getty Images

Officially, the centres are considered a success, with China claiming they have boosted growth for thousands of farmers across the continent. Meng Fanxing, a lecturer at ZATDC, said: “We have trained more than 1300 Zambians on different aspects of agriculture such as maize, soybean, vegetable and mushroom production, and agricultural machinery.”

The programme is part of the Forum for China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) – an initiative to reduce poverty through agricultural training – and its action plan includes three commitments related to women: equality, employment and self-development.

In a country where 65% of farmers are female, the centre offers an opportunity to improve women’s livelihoods. However, according to the Agency for Cooperation and Research in Development (ACORD), only 42 of all farmers trained atZATDC are female.

There’s no gender bias and this centre does not choose candidates, said Fanxing. “The ministry of agriculture publishes the training information on its website, and the farms register there. We also spread the training information through our workers, so the locals approach us.”

Dana Kamau, the centre’s only female trainer, believes the fault lies with the government. “The ministry of agriculture has a committee that makes the selection. They choose males, because they have bigger farms and more resources.”

Women farming in Darfur. Photograph: Albert Gonzalez Farran/AFP/Getty Images

According to the UN, small-scale farmers produce more than 80% of the food requirements in Zambia but productivity is low, with little left over for selling.

In neighbouring Tanzania, 80% of farmers are female. Here, the ATDC is located in the tobacco highlands region. Lush small farms, bursting with wheat and rice fields, dominate the landscape. The centre is deep inside the village of Dakawa, surrounded by a high wall, some 250km north of Dar es Salaam.

Professor Chen Hualin, the centre’s director, said at least half of the 2,800 farmers trainedwere female. “The trainee farmers have been chosen by local government, village leaders, and farmers associations. We also have experts going out to farms for demonstrations.”

But less than a kilometre down the road, farmers were mystified as theyhad had no idea what went on behind the centre’s walls. “They’ve been here for years, but we don’t see them. We don’t know what work they do behind the high wall, we’ve never been told of training,” said Zuhura Ali, 62.

Leya Msengu, 50, has farmed all her life, producing just enough to feed her family. Having heard of farmers who increased yields after learning Chinese farming methods, she visited the centre to ask for information, with no success. “There’s no formal process, they don’t tell us how we can apply for training. They only say we can get a job there for 5,000TZH (£1.70) a day.”

Hualin said local farmers might have been overlooked as the programme has focused on regional outreach, adding that a new programme aims to reach all five wards within Dakawa.

At the nearby state-funded Agricultural Research Institute, Sophia Kashenge, officer in charge, said: “The Chinese centre does have benefits, but not as much as expected. What we need is specific, gender-inclusive guidelines for who needs to be trained.”

She’s optimistic that new agreements with the Chinese can advance the FOCAC commitments to both improve food security, and empower women, “but only if government makes a concerted effort to prioritise the needs of female smallholders, who lack access to capital, markets, and information”.

Sven Grimm, a China-Africa expert at the Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik, said the onus for gender equality was on the larger and more powerful partner in the cooperation. “The Chinese approach is officially ’driven by demand’- and the ball on responsibility would thus, from a Chinese perspective, be in the court of African governments.”

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