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Investing in the future of African women farmers

At the age of 12, Malawi-born Mphangera Kamanga knew she wanted to go to university to study agriculture so she could help smallholder farmers to improve their yields. 

“When I thought about farming, I realised that there was a need for labour-saving technologies and improved policies around access to land and resources to assist women in particular to increase their yields,” she said.

At 24, her vision is holding steady.

Now in the final year of her research masters in agronomy at the University of Pretoria in South Africa, as part of the MasterCard Foundation Scholars Program, Kamanga’s research is geared towards improving productivity among resource-constrained smallholder African farmers, particularly women.

Her potential to make an important impact in her field continues to be recognised at the highest levels.

Kamanga is one of 45 young people from 54 African countries selected by the African Network of Youth Policy Experts to represent Malawi as a Young Country Policy Coordinator, a role that puts her in a strong position to influence the drafting of integrated agricultural policies to support women farmers and young people in agricultural advancement. 

Last year, Kamanga was one of 70 women to receive the prestigious African Women in Agriculture and Research Development fellowship after finishing her honours degree in agriculture at the University of Cape Town.

The fellowship programme enhances the research and leadership skills of women agricultural scientists across Sub-Saharan Africa with a view to contributing to the development of African smallholder farmers, particularly women. 

Women in agriculture

“Most smallholder farmers in Africa are women, so I tend to focus on the challenges faced by women farmers,” Kamanga toldUniversity World News

Among these challenges is the fact that in the African context, the land tenure system favours men rather than women. “As a result, women are unable to access credit because they have too little land to qualify for loans,” she said.

According to Kamanga, this lack of empowerment is in conflict with the fact that it is women who tend to make most of the decisions at the level of the household. In addition, their farming activities are over and above a range of other household chores and responsibilities.

“When I thought about the way in which a lot of farming activities happen in Africa, I realised that there was a need to for labour-saving technologies to assist women in particular to increase their yields,” she said.

Kamanga said resource constraints are a reality among smallholder farmers throughout Africa. “Land for poor people is limited, so it becomes much more important to utilise locally available technologies to achieve higher yields,” she said. 

Kamanga’s research

In her research at the University of Pretoria, Kamanga is analysing smallholder farming systems with a view to understanding how locally available resources can improve output. 

“Yes, most farmers face a lack of resources, but can they use locally available resources to improve their crop yields?” she asks.

While her research is being conducted in South Africa under the supervision of three supervisors – two in South Africa and one based in the Netherlands – Kamanga believes the challenges facing small-scale farmers in Africa are shared across the continent, and the methods of production used are similar.

Among the locally available technologies, Kamanga is focusing on the production and application of organic manure and the implementation of tillage systems to conserve water use.

She is also using modelling tools to predict how climate change can affect agricultural systems and what technologies can be used to improve crop production in the context of climate change.

A short history

A first-generation university student, Kamanga said her parents were somewhat amazed by, but thoroughly supportive of, her determination to study. In her choice of agriculture they saw the potential for their daughter to help her fellow countrymen and women achieve greater food security. 

One of nine children, Kamanga was born in a village near Kasungu, to which the family has maintained a permanent link. As a schoolgirl she showed strong academic capabilities in science subjects. She was also determined to succeed. 

When she entered high school in Lilongwe she started selling roasted groundnuts to raise money for bus fare, which saved her well over an hour in walking time between home and school. Any extra money was paid back into the household – a welcome addition to family income after Kamanga’s father was retrenched from a job in telecommunications in 2008.

“I knew what I wanted in my life, and my mother was particularly encouraging as I grew up,” she said.

After enrolling at Bunda College of Agriculture for a four-year degree, Kamanga successfully applied for scholarships that recognised both her academic and leadership potential.

While completing her honours degree at the University of Cape Town, she applied to the MasterCard Foundation and was granted a scholarship to pursue her research masters at the University of Pretoria. The degree brings her closer to fulfilling her childhood goal of helping smallholder farmers, particularly women.

Future plans

Kamanga says while she intends studying further, her immediate intention after graduation is to return to Malawi and establish a training centre for young people interested in agriculture. “I want to encourage the involvement of young people in agriculture and share my knowledge with them,” she said.

“When I go back to my village, I am struck by how much passion there is to be involved in agriculture, but people don’t know how to access resources and training. I want to assist here,” she said.

Kamanga said she also wants to help people understand the scope offered by a career in agriculture. 

“Back home, people used to ask me why I studied farming and not engineering or something more ‘exciting’. I would explain to them that agriculture is not all about being on the farm. A career in agriculture can embrace a range of aspects, from policy-making to entrepreneurship and other business-related activities.”

The knowledge gap between researchers and smallholder African farmers is still an issue, particularly when it comes to female researchers, Kamanga said.

“We need female researchers working at policy-making levels to assist in developing policies which favour women; which can help them access land and finance.” 

She said farming practices and choices are still largely guided by available resources. “My research is sensitive to the reality of resource constraints. Farmers will only accept new methods and technologies if they are seen to be responding to on-the-ground realities,” she said.

Her ultimate ambition is to establish a seed processing unit which will not only supply good quality, high-yield seed to local farmers and seed companies, but also generate much needed employment opportunities for young people. 

“There is some resistance to changing the kinds of seeds being used, but I think there is a major opportunity for African researchers to show the value of higher yielding seeds, particularly in the context of resource constraints,” she said.