LONDON (Reuters) - Like many African women, Mazoe Gondwe is her family's main food provider. Lately, she has struggled to farm her plot in Malawi due to unpredictable rains that are making her hard life even tougher.
"Now we can't just depend on rain-fed agriculture, so we plant two crops - one watered with rain and one that needs irrigating," she explained. "But irrigation is back-breaking and can take four hours a day."
Gondwe, flown by development agency ActionAid to U.N. climate change talks in Poland this month, said she wanted access to technology that would cut the time it takes to water her crops and till her farm garden. She would also be glad of help to improve storage facilities and seed varieties.
"As a local farmer, I know what I need and I know what works. I grew up in the area and I know how the system is changing," Gondwe said.
This year, agricultural experts have renewed calls for policy makers to pay more attention to small-scale women farmers such as Gondwe, who grow up to 80 percent of crops for food consumption in Africa.
After decades in the political wilderness, farming became a hot topic this year when international food prices hit record highs in June, sharply boosting hunger around the world. The proportion of development aid spent on agriculture has dropped to just 4 percent from a peak of 17 percent in 1982.
Former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has called for women to be at the heart of a "policy revolution" to boost small-scale farming in Africa.
Women have traditionally shouldered the burden of household food production both there and in Asia, while men tend to focus on growing cash crops or migrate to cities to find paid work.
Yet women own a tiny percentage of the world's land -- some experts say as little as 2 percent -- and receive only around 5 percent of farming information services and training.
"Today the African farmer is the only farmer who takes all the risks herself: no capital, no insurance, no price supports, and little help - if any - from governments. These women are tough and daring and resilient, but they need help," Annan told an October conference on fighting hunger.
A new toolkit explaining how to tackle gender issues in farming development projects, published by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), highlights the potential returns of improving women's access to technology, land and finance.
In Ghana, for example, if women and men had equal land rights and security of tenure, women's use of fertiliser and profits per hectare would nearly double.
In Burkina Faso, Kenya and Tanzania, giving women entrepreneurs the same inputs and education as men would boost business revenue by up to 20 percent. And in Ivory Coast, raising women's income by $10 brings improvements in children's health and nutrition that would require a $110 increase in men's income.
"The knowledge is there, the know-how is there, but the world -- and here I'm talking rich and poor -- doesn't apply it as much as it could," said Marcela Villarreal, director of FAO's gender, equity and rural employment division.
Many African governments have introduced formal laws making women and men equal, but have troubling enforcing them where they clash with customary laws giving property ownership rights to men, she said.
Often if a woman's husband dies, she has little choice but to marry one of his relatives so she can keep farming her plot and feeding her children, Villarreal said. But if a widow is HIV positive, she might be chased off her land.
In Malawi, FAO is working with parliamentarians and village chiefs to let rural women know they are legally able to hold land titles. They are given wind-up radios so they can listen to farming shows in local languages and taught how to write a will.
"People continue to think that doing things for women is part of a welfare programme and doing things for men - big investments or credit - that is agriculture, that is GDP-related," Villarreal said.
"Women continue not to be seen as part of the productive potential of a country."
One powerful woman trying to change that is Agnes Kalibata, Rwanda's minister of state for agriculture. She said government land reform and credit programmes specifically target struggling women farmers - many of whom are bringing up children alone after their husbands were killed in the 1994 genocide.
This has helped raise their incomes, leading to better nutrition, health and education for their children, Kalibata said. Women are also getting micro-credit loans, which they use to access markets and cooperatives or set up small businesses, such as producing specialty coffee for export.
"They are not like rocket scientists, they are women from the general population who finally feel empowered that they can come out and do some of these things," explained Kalibata.
In the private sector, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has decided to put women at the centre of its agricultural development programme by attaching conditions to grants. It no longer finances projects that ignore gender issues, and it requires women to be involved in their design and implementation.
Catherine Bertini, a senior fellow at the foundation and professor of public administration at Syracuse University, said aid donors had not spent enough on support for women farmers.
"You can find the rhetoric but it's a limited number of people who actually walk the walk," she said.
Bertini, who headed the U.N. World Food Programme in the 1990s, said policy makers could best be persuaded to focus on women farmers by playing up the economic benefits rather than talking about gender equality.
"You convince people to do it because it's the most practical way to increase productivity and income to women," she said.
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