drudgeryhard, tedious, menial and backbreaking work

time poverty: “working long hours and having no choice to do otherwise”


October 3, 2013. Imagine being a “typical woman” in a farm household. You’d be responsible for not only household duties from child rearing to preparing meals and fetching water and fuel, but also for major, sometimes primary, contributions to the most laborious and time-consuming farm work. In agricultural work alone, women in sub-Saharan Africa spend an average of 125% of the time that men spend on production labor each day, and that’s before you even count the household and childcare responsibilities that women shoulder (World Bank 2006). Rural women in Rwanda, for instance, work an estimated 14-17 hours a day (African Development Bank 2008). While varying across geographic areas, women in male-headed rural households typically have primary production responsibility for planting, weeding, harvesting, and most postharvest tasks. For all of these areas, there are already proven technologies that reduce labor requirements. Technologies that reduce the time requirements for usual farm tasks, particularly backbreaking ones, can create a huge positive impact for the efficiency and productivity of women, positively contributing to the food security of the household and the community.

A member with Upendo Women Group harvesting colored pepper grown in a green house in Lushoto district, Tanga region..jpg

The FAO estimates that total agricultural output in developing countries could increase by as much as 4% and the total number of undernourished people could decrease by as much as 17% if women were given equal assets to resources (including time, knowledge, assets, and inputs) as men. That means we could reduce the total number of undernourished people in the world by 150 million (FAO).

So what does this mean for designing, adapting, and marketing technology to women?

Replacing drudgery with drudgery is not a good selling point, unless there is an end in sight. Promoting technologies or methodologies that require a lot of up-front labor should have an end in sight. Fintrac actively promotes raised beds to increase productivity and reduce required labor/stooping from weeding and harvesting. However, building those beds by hand requires up-front time-consuming drudgery. How can this spike in up-front labor be justified? Raised beds prevent crop loss from flooding; preserve moisture in soil which means you need to water less; and raise the weeding/harvesting surface so that there's less stooping. On top of the labor saved by not having to replant following heavy rains, income generated as a result of using raised beds can even pay for mechanized land preparation and bed making equipment, resulting in an even greater improvement in efficiency. 

Technologies that perpetually add labor time aren’t good technologies.Manually operated treadle pumps have been widely promoted by donors as a cheap option to expand irrigation (which we know, combined with the introduction of other Good Agricultural Practices, can significantly increase productivity and incomes). Initial sales in South Asia, specifically Bangladesh, India, and Nepal, were impressive. However, sales have plummeted after donor-supported programs ended and, more worrisome, so did their utilization by purchasers.  Just 8 percent of initial purchasers used the tool, according to a 2011 survey of a district in India (International Water Management Institute 2011). Disuse was attributed to reduced costs for diesel pumps (including rental services) and the increased cost of labor for operating the pumps. Women pumped “for five to six hours a day, taking breaks in between … usually starting early in the morning at 6 and pedaling until 10 a.m., and starting again at 4 p.m. and pedaling until 6 p.m.” (The Energy and Resources Institute, 2007). Another study commissioned by the promoter recommended that it “stress the benefits from the pump and deflect from the drudgery that it entails” to persuade women to operate them (Rajsheker). Unsurprisingly, similar donor-supported sales programs have not proven very successful in Africa.


Treadle Pumps may be more drudgery than

they’re worth for womenDrudgery for one woman, may be another’s livelihood. In Cambodia, Fintrac is promoting the use of plastic drum seeders for rice production, both through individual ownership and through rentals by local service providers. Drum seeders are a proven technology to increase yields through proper and uniform crop density and decrease the quantity and cost of seeds compared to traditional broadcast and plug transplant methods. It also dramatically reduces per hectare total labor requirements by 30 percent for both men and women (Parid and Ngoc 2005).  Each cropping cycle, the drum seeder reduces women’s labor requirements an average of 21 days per hectare, with more than half of that time savings coming from the elimination of the tedious tasks of gap filling and weeding. Great technology right? Most definitely for the farming household. But, if that household used outside labor to help on its farm, it now needs less farm labor that was previously provided by landless households. While technology does reduce labor needs, this assistance comes at a time of the year when labor is scarce and expensive. In addition, when labor needs peak, many farms are planted late, with reduced yields being one result. So while the need for labor is decreased, the farm household becomes more efficient and will make a greater income, which typically enters the local economy to purchase other goods and services.


Written by Tom Klotzbach, Fintrac Inc. CEO