Seeds of New Gender Dynamics: Impacts of Improved Rice Varieties on Smallholder Farmers in Uganda

The Gender in Agriculture Partnership (GAP) write about Johanna Bergman Lodin’s research that investigates the impact of improved rice variety on women small-holder farmers in Uganda.


One of the challenges with the introduction of promising, new agricultural technologies is understanding at whose cost agriculture is made more productive and profitable, and whether men and women benefit equitably.


“Agricultural intensification and development are inextricably bound up in social and gendered processes,” says Johanna Bergman Lodin, who has spent years researching the livelihood impacts of improved crop varieties and currently works with the CGIAR Research Program on Agriculture for Nutrition and Health (CRP A4NH) and CGIAR Gender and Agriculture Research Network. Her recent work, published inGender, Technology, and Development and the Journal of Eastern African Studies, has focused on a gendered analysis of the benefits and burdens associated with the introduction of an improved upland rice variety that is transforming rice production in Uganda.


Bergman Lodin’s findings suggest that the effects on women’s lives and gender dynamics are complex. The expanded cultivation of rice, due to the success of the improved rice variety, NERICA-4, is imposing new labor and time constraints on female farmers. But it is also expanding family incomes and food security, and giving women greater bargaining power with their husbands regarding the household division of labor – and its proceeds.


In Uganda, women traditionally grow low-value food crops for home consumption and local markets. Men take charge of production and proceeds from high-value cash crops, mainly tobacco.


“The introduction of the NERICA-4 rice variety has challenged and changed this dynamic,” explains Bergman Lodin. “In Uganda, rice is both a high-value crop and a food crop, produced by men and women. Women are recognized as being contributing partners in a joint endeavor – and not merely as part of the unpaid family labor, helping the husband with his commercial crop.”


The NERICA (short for New Rice for Africa) varieties were developed by the Africa Rice Center (AfricaRice) and its national partners. They combine the robust qualities of African rice species with the greater yields of Asian ones to greatly boost rice production and food security. In Uganda, the NERICA-4 variety dominates and is appreciated for its hardiness, high yields, and 30% shorter maturation time compared with traditional rice varieties.


Bergman Lodin’s initial findings regarding the impact of NERICA-4 on the smallholder farmers of Hoima District in Uganda suggested that the new rice, which was the equivalent of a new crop in the region, was offering smallholder farmers an unmatched economic opportunity in terms of cash income.


But she was quick to discover that though much research had been conducted on the NERICA varieties, most had been conducted in West Africa, and very little had looked at gender.


“This became a real eye opener to me,” says Bergman Lodin, as her early findings were suggesting important gender differences in the implications of the new rice cultivation.


With Magnus Jirström, Göran Djurfeldt and Susan Paulson, her colleagues and PhD supervisors at Lund University, Bergman Lodin conducted a follow-up study to more fully understand how gender and labor dynamics were affecting and affected by the impacts of NERICA-4 production in Hoima District. They surveyed over 300 rice grower households, including male- and female-headed ones. They conducted more than 50 focus groups and key stakeholder interviews, and they gathered daily diaries from 13 households detailing precise time and labor use for each member.


“We found that the benefits from NERICA come at significant costs to women, who take on the most burdensome tasks related to its cultivation,” says Bergman Lodin.


Due to gender and generational norms that influence practice, women, with help from their children, take on the responsibility for protecting the rice crop from pests and weeds. With rice, these are especially back-breaking and time-consuming tasks. During the crop’s most vulnerable periods, women report feeling like  “slaves to the rice” unable to rest, send children to school, or tend to other tasks.


However, because men feel a vested economic interest in NERICA-4, they are willing to deviate from traditional gendered divisions of labor and pitch in to ensure maximum yields. Bergman Lodin notes that though men’s participation is still lower and less back-breaking, it does point to adjustments and renegotiations that that could lead to more balanced and sustainable investments in household labor for NERICA-4 production.


Likewise, women in the study report gaining a greater voice within the household. Traditionally, men control the sale of cash crops and all of the proceeds. But the joint management and labor investment in the NERICA-4 rice crop is giving women more bargaining power.


Bergman Lodin quotes a female focus group participant as saying, “In the past, he was the one to decide, since he was the one to grow income generating crops. Now, we have decision power!”


Men still have the final say in the household, and not all women are successful at bargaining a better share of control over the earnings from their rice production. But changes are evident.


“NERICA-4 production is providing socioeconomic leverage for women and an effective entry point into more commercially-oriented modes of production,” says Bergman Lodin, “It is opening up a window of opportunity for women in a way tobacco never has.”


But further advances and support are needed to reduce the crop’s heavy demands on women’s labor. The use of protective netting, natural predators, or a specially-developed quelea virus are examples of areas under investigation to control bird pests. Different forms of planting and land management, the use of weeders, and use of indigenous ground cover plants between rice rows and during fallow periods are being researched to inhibit weed growth. How these developments could be applied and adopted to improve women’s lives needs further study.


Likewise, gender inequities in access to land remain to be resolved, offering a challenge to researchers engaged in promoting greater gender equity in land rights and policies – and their enforcement.

The Gender and Agriculture Network and increased focus on gender research across the CGIAR Research Programs offer the space to take on the challenge of ensuring that women, and children, reap equitable benefits from technological advances with sustainable, time-saving methods compatible with their roles and resources. By more fully understanding how NERICA-4 affects gender dynamics within the household and addressing the policy and technology challenges raised in this research work, gender researchers and partners can help shift the success of NERICA from one measured solely by growths in household income and production to one that also transforms women’s lives.

Posted by Gender in Agriculture Partnership (GAP) on the GAP website.

Photo credit: ©FAO/Caroline Thomas


The Gender in Agriculture Partnership (GAP) is a multi-stakeholder network of institutions and individuals promoting gender equity and women’s empowerment in the agricultural sector in order to increase production and productivity, value-addition and increases in incomes, reduce losses and wastage, and ensure food and nutrition security, particularly at the household level. GAP has come together through the open and inclusive forum of GFAR, in particular though actions of FAO, IFAD and WFP, specialists from the CGIAR system, three Regional Fora and civil society networks.


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