Imagine a rural household in the developing world. There is a husband, a wife, and children. They own and tend to a parcel of land. Now, imagine that an NGO arrives and offers this family a new low-cost, low-risk technology--like a high-yielding seed variety or an affordable fertilizer package offered for sale near the farm--that promises to increase crop yields by 25%. Adopting that technology would be the obvious choice, right?

EPAR’s body of research on gender in developing countries reveals that this decision might be more complex than it seems. Drawing on studies from Tanzania, Malawi, Uganda, Bangladesh, and others, the evidence suggests that adoption decisions and the benefits of interventions can differ systematically between men and women within a given household. Understanding the ways in which households allocate time, labor, resources, and decision-making authority is vital for policymakers.

Return then to our simple hypothetical--the yield-improving technology--and examine it again, but through a gender lens. To start with, you might ask what type of crop this technology is designed for. Decisions surrounding crops can be highly gendered. In some countries, women tend to the crops with low market value and which are consumed in the household, whereas men primarily look after the cash crops sold at market. To complicate matters further, these roles can also be fluid: if a crop typically looked after by women suddenly becomes profitable, men will sometimes take control of that crop. Of course, these patterns will vary depending on where a family lives.

Hmong Embroidery

You may also want to know about the woman’s decision-making authority within the household, including what degree of control she has over the household’s production, consumption, and financial decisions. In Bangladesh, microcredit loans to women have been found to have a positive effect on per-capita consumption within a household, whereas loans to men have no effect. Studies from Burkina Faso, Cameroon, and Kenya estimate that increasing a woman’s control over inputs and income could boost farm yields by up to 20 percent. Additionally, household survey data reveal that female-headed households are more likely to grow two or more crops at the same time on the same piece of land (i.e. intercropping) (Tanzania), are more likely to suffer seasonal hunger (Malawi), and are smaller in size and less likely to market their crops and purchase agricultural inputs (Tanzania) – all of which could influence the decision of whether to adopt a particular yield-improving technology.

Now, let’s assume the NGO offering the yield-improving technology hoped that the increased yields would benefit the children in the family. The NGO might assume a causal relationship where greater crop yields would generate greater profits from crop sales for the household and make more food available for household consumption, which would in turn translate into better diets and overall welfare for the children. However, this may not always be true. In Tanzania, data show that men are more likely than women to spend on personal consumption over household food and other needs. In the end an increase in crop yields may not benefit children if the woman has little influence over how the extra production is used, including whether it is sold and how the income from sales is used.

How women use their time is another key consideration. EPAR’s research has found that men and women in Tanzania typically spend similar amounts of time on household agricultural activities, but that women spend over three times as many hours each week than men doing unpaid domestic work. Thus many women may simply not have the time to implement a new farm technology. EPAR research further found that in Uganda men underreport--relative to women--the time that women spend doing domestic labor. This suggests it is also important to know who provides estimates of labor constraints, and to consider the time and labor requirements of the new technology relative to current farm practices.

A technology intended to boost the net welfare of the whole family may fail to achieve its purpose if it adds an additional burden to women’s already substantial time and labor constraints. In Tanzania, interventions that may seem useful at first blush might actually be harmful to women if they increase demands on a woman’s time. For instance, new seeds might require more weeding or watering—activities usually undertaken by women. The degree to which a woman benefits from the technology thus hinges on her ability to effectively reallocate her time: shifting the time she spends on her current tasks to accommodate the new workload, shorting some other essential tasks, or simply working more.

Female Terrace Farmer

This thought exercise provides a useful, broad-brush illustration of the range of gender-related questions that EPAR explores through its research. The findings are highly context dependent, varying by country, region, and household: not all men prioritize their own consumption over that of the family, and not all female-headed households are more likely to experience seasonal hunger. To review the details of our full portfolio of gender-related research, please visit our website

Much of this evidence points to opportunities for further investigation. A finding such as “Women in Tanzania are more likely to intercrop” naturally begs follow-up questions: “Why and how does this new information influence policy design intended to improve outcomes for all household members?” These are difficult questions to answer without more gender-disaggregated, intra-household data.

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By Trygve Madsen

Summarizing research by Pierre Biscaye, Audrey Lawrence, C. Leigh Anderson, and Travis Reynolds

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