Seeing the big picture through the eyes of women  

HE Dr. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma at the opening ceremony of the conference

By Richard Powell, RUFORUM Communications Consultant

One of the enduring images of agriculture in Africa is that of the aging women, bent forward at the hip, using a rudimentary hand-held hoe to cultivate her nascent, subsistence crops, often constrained in her role by negative patriarchal cultural norms and values.

This stereotype may be increasingly redundant as traditional gender roles and divisions slowly mutate with changes in market places, such as the migration of men to non-agricultural job opportunities.  However, in agriculture – as in many areas of life on the continent – there remains an imperative to appreciate the enduring importance of women in society.

This point was pointedly made by Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the Chairperson of the African Union (AU) Commission, at a speech delivered on the opening day of the 4th RUFORUM Biennial Conference taking place this week in Maputo, Mozambique.  “Not only do women constitute over half of the African population,” she remarked to her audience, “but they produce the other half, too!”

Her speech located the centrality of women, along with other critical factors, within the AU’s draft ‘Agenda 2063’.  This proposes a vision of “An integrated, prosperous and peaceful Africa, driven by its own citizens and representing a dynamic force in the global arena,” in which the continent learns effectively from past lessons, builds on progress underway and strategically exploits all possible opportunities available in the immediate and medium term, so as to ensure positive socio-economic transformation over the next 50 years.

Underpinning this agenda is a rekindling of what the AU describes as “the passion for pan-Africanism, a sense of unity, self-reliance, integration and solidarity that was a highlight of the triumphs of the 20th century.”  Highlighting the need for Africa to reclaim ownership of its own future, meeting its own self-identified needs rather than pursuing agendas that react to available donor funding opportunities, Dr Dlamini-Zuma recounted a comical and admonishing encounter with a male villager whilst she was a South African government minister and discussing the United Nations’ (UN) Millennium Development Goals.  “Why do we need the UN to tell us to take our children to school?” asked the man, bemoaning the agenda set by others outside the continent.  “We know we should and we should do it.”

It is an argument that has prescience in the field of agricultural higher education, and the work of RUFORUM, on the continent.  Opening up greater access to quality primary education clearly has inherent value.  However, as Dr Dlamini-Zuma noted, “Primary education is important but no country has developed on primary education alone.”  As such, she espoused the need to also focus on higher education, which she described as critical in the generation of the knowledge necessary to impact upon the innovation desperately needed to advance the continent’s developmental goals.

However Dr Dlamini-Zuma noted that, in order to ensure they reach the critical mass of learners necessary to accelerate that developmental agenda, African institutions of higher education need to supplement the traditional ‘bricks-and-mortar’ approach to learning with the opening up of knowledge generation in virtual spaces using e-learning and other technology-generated pedagogic opportunities.  This is an approach that is currently being explored in the agricultural higher education field by RUFORUM with Massive Open Online Courses (commonly called MOOCS), online courses aimed at unlimited participation and open access via the web.

However, as we drive forward an African determined and owned educational and developmental agenda, it is imperative that the role of women is not limited to that of recipients of its results.  Rather it must be supplemented by the creation of meaningful opportunities for females to be integral to the agenda’s development and delivery by ensuring they are trained to assume leadership roles, including in that of agriculture.  Not only is it time to “consign the wooden hoe to the museum”, as Dr Dlamini-Zuma asserted, but also to see women standing proudly upright in leadership roles as much as they were previously bowed in the fields.

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