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Biofuels: Threat or opportunity for women?

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Photo courtesy of the World Bank

In Africa, where two-thirds of farmers are women, the potential of biofuels as a low or lower-carbon alternative fuel, with applications at the household energy, community and village level, to a national resource or export commodity, has a critical gender dimension. The key question is: how will increased biofuel production affect women?

To look at the impacts on women, one logical approach is to use a computable general equilibrium model that tracks economic impacts of new crops and how patterns of trade and substitution will change. It’s important to account for the complexities involved, and rely not on a simple, traditional commodity model but one that tracks the impacts on women through changing prices and demands for crops to be sold on local and international markets. Who gains and who loses as prices change, and as the value of specific crops and of land changes?

In a detailed modeling effort based on the situation today in Mozambique, World Bank economist Rui Benfica and colleagues (Arndt, et al., 2011) found that even with significant land area available, the impacts of large increases in biofuels production — which are now under way — will do little to benefit women. This is largely because shifts to export-oriented and commercial agriculture, while they may raise export earnings, often exclude women. Women are often already far over-burdened by work and time commitments to subsistence farming, other income-generating activities and household work, including child care. The CGE model shows that financially profitable biofuel expansions may widen this gap, and reinforce this exclusion.

Interestingly, including a focus on primary school education for girls (a good idea already, but one made quantitative in these studies) in skills training programs can address this concern. For many women, however, the same problem remains: there is simply no time to take advantage of new opportunities. Mozambique is an important illustrative example, as its agriculture sector is heavily dependent on small-scale farmers, the majority of whom are women.

Thus, biofuel policies — both positive and negative — can lead to attention to issues of gender inequality where planning can play a major role. Our challenge is reflect these shared benefits – food security, economic opportunity, and climate protection, in clear and transparent metrics. By doing so, we can gain insights into the economic realities of poor households.

Do solutions exist that take advantage of new commodities and markets, without essentially pricing poor women farmers out of local subsistence agriculture (or onto even poorer land) and denying them the benefits of added commercial sales? One avenue is work to anticipate these changes – based on the sort of modeling that Rui Benfica and colleagues did – and to issue land certificates to women so that they can more easily hold onto their land if commercial markets begin to encroach on their agricultural holdings.

One potential solution is that applied in Ethiopia, where a system of community-driven and managed land certification has provided women with land-tenure security. This is explored, along with other solutions in a recent book edited by Calestous Juma of Harvard University, The New Harvest: Agricultural Innovation in Africa (2011).

What else can be done? Agricultural productivity requires an ‘enabling infrastructure’ beyond the requisite land, seeds, and water. Networks to bring crops to market with minimal losses on the fields and post-harvest (where up to one-third of yields can be lost in some poor nations) are one aspect to consider, as is the use of information technology to warn even the poorest subsistence farmers (often women) of extreme weather, and to help communities find new outlets for their commodities. Another angle is added planning for diversified cropping, including cases where food, feed, and fibre (for durable goods or biofuels) can be grown together in more resilient eco-agricultural systems.

Daniel Kammen’s posts appear here and on the Development in a Changing Climate blog at the World Bank, where he is chief technical specialist for renewable energy and energy efficiency. He is an adviser to National Geographic’s Great Energy Challenge initiative.