September 27, 2023

  • A recent international study demonstrates that when women farmers are more actively involved in decision-making, both farming productivity and conservation may improve.
  • The study, which was published in the journal Communications Earth & Environment, examined whether giving farmers financial incentives to safeguard the environment would be beneficial. It discovered that such rewards are not always dependable; women’s decision-making responsibilities are more reliable.
  • The results contribute to a growing body of study on women and agricultural decision-making, but internationally, women are underrepresented in leadership roles, particularly in the environmental sector.

According to a recent research, when women farmers are more heavily represented in collective choices on sustainable farming methods, both conservation and agricultural productivity can increase.

The study, which was released in February in the journal Communications Earth & Environment, emphasizes that when gender diversity was enhanced, agricultural productivity and conservation outcomes within the study group improved.

The results add to a corpus of developing studies emphasizing the significant role that women may play in the efficient and successful management of both natural resources and agricultural endeavors.

The findings were rather unexpected for the researchers, who had originally intended the study to look at the efficacy of giving farmers financial incentives to safeguard the environment. They wanted to see how farmers responded to conservation-related problems. However, they discovered that such payments are not always dependable and may not result in a situation where everyone wins. Women in decision-making positions are far more effective.

Wei Zhang, a senior research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute and a co-author of the paper, told Mongabay in an interview that the experiment wasn’t created to investigate the mechanism by which women’s participation had an impact. However, such analyses have been used in earlier studies and have added to the knowledge base; Zhang and her team’s findings do the same.

A player considers his choices in the NonCropShare game.
In Siem Reap, Cambodia, a player in the NonCropShare game weighs his options. By permission of Andrew Reid Bell and crew.

Using the modeling program NetLogo, the researchers created three video games for the study. “GooseBump,” “NonCropShare,” and “SharedSpace” were the titles of the games.

Each of the video games, according to the study, presented a unique conundrum for gamers. According to the researchers, GooseBump is a situation in which a player must select whether to apply deadly control, allow invading wildlife harm crops, or drive the animals away and onto other farms. Contrarily, in NonCropShare, players may decide whether to use pesticides or organic insect-based pest treatments, while in SharedSpace, players had to decide how to balance crop production with the preservation of forests and fallow land.

These games were played on tablets in seven different nations in Asia, Africa, and Europe, including the Orkney Islands, Kenya, and Cambodia.

The study’s lead author, associate professor of earth and environment at Boston University Andrew Reid Bell, claims that whenever it was appropriate locally, the research team gave cash prizes for playing the game that were roughly equivalent to a day’s wages, with some variation based on the players’ scores.

He went on to explain that a player’s wages would be dependent on their performance in the game based on something they called “incentive compatibility” – how well a player’s actions in the game lined up with how they would make similar decisions in real life.

However, “in some cases, groups didn’t feel that this was appropriate and we would take their lead,” Bell said. As an alternative, Bell suggested giving out tokens like soap or phone top-ups.

The study discovered that while payments can promote pro-conservation behavior across the aforementioned spectrum of problems, they frequently fall short of maximizing the potential for simultaneously enhancing agricultural productivity and environmental consequences.

Instead, the study found that groups with higher levels of education, greater gender diversity, and stronger representation of women performed better in terms of both production (yield) and environmental protection.

A facilitator looking over participants in a game session in Sambava region, Madagascar.
A facilitator looking over participants in a game session in Sambava region, Madagascar. Image courtesy of Andrew Reid Bell and team.


Bell claims that despite their best efforts to include women in the study sample, the focus on women wasn’t key to the study design, which is why the research findings came as “a surprise”.

The research revealed “that landscape outcomes were in many cases better when groups included more representation from women,” Bell stated in an interview with Mongabay. However, he cautioned, the study analyses were only done at the group level, not the individual level.

According to Bell, researchers may carefully craft trials in subsequent studies to pinpoint the impacts of women’s involvement as well as their responsibilities in decision-making.

According to Bell, they discovered that the games are excellent framing devices to highlight problems that farmers confront.

Bell pointed out that the games revealed a spectrum of varied answers to issues rather than specific behaviors that were distinctive to men or women. The results showed that game groups with more women and more gender diversity tended to be more successful.

According to the research, “their involvement boosted cooperation between farmers on environmental issues and increased output.”

However, Bell suggested that they should examine their findings more closely by looking at how possibly women played the games differently.

“However, we haven’t yet done that. What is it about women’s engagement in farming that leads to improved production outcomes? is a really important research subject for our future work and that of others, in my opinion, he continued.

Some Nigerian women farmers working on a farm field in Nasarawa community.
Nigerian women farmers tending a field in the town of Nasarawa. Abdulkareem Mojeed created the image.

Another study conducted in a farming community on Indonesia’s Sulawesi Island and published in February found that women and younger farmers can be more influential than older men in persuading peers to adopt new technologies and practices. This finding is consistent with Bell and his team of researchers’ discovery of women’s potential influence in conservation-oriented decision-making. According to the researchers, this may have important ramifications for environmentalists eager to mainstream sustainable agricultural initiatives inside communities.

Zhang claimed that their discoveries have helped to increase the body of knowledge, which is still growing. Individually or collectively, people’s choices, attitudes, and behaviors in relation to natural resources are complicated and context-specific, according to her. She stated that further empirical study was required to fully understand how gender affects collective action, resource governance, and conservation.

One of the main conclusions from the study, according to Zhang, was that gender norms and social conceptions have a significant impact on almost every element of life, with particular consequences for productivity, conservation, health, and development.

“Many SDG [sustainable development goal] objectives have gender equality as both their method and their purpose. Therefore, gender empowerment should be taken into account while designing projects, she continued.

Some Nigerian women farmers working on a farm field in Nasarawa community.
Nigerian women farmers working in a field in Nasarawa community. Image by Abdulkareem Mojeed.

Women lag behind in leadership roles

Women’s representation in conservation decision-making appears to be far from ideal globally, despite the fact that several research findings have suggested that women’s participation in farming groups with sustainable agricultural goals is a significant human factor that could make a difference around the world.

According to data from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), women are frequently underrepresented in positions of decision-making, despite the fact that they often offer significant expertise and experience to successfully protecting the environment and attaining sustainable development goals.

Only 15% of nations with ministries expressly concerned with climate change are led by women, according to the IUCN, while only 18% of ministries dealing with forests and only 11% of ministries dealing with water are led by women.

Local levels are similar in a lot of ways. Nigeria is a prime example. Nigerian women perform the bulk of farmwork and other associated tasks, and they play a crucial role in the production of food and agriculture. But they fall short in positions of leadership. Even though there were 8.9% fewer women running for office in Nigeria’s general elections in February than there were in 2019, despite the fact that women made up nearly half of the country’s population (49.32%), according to Busola Ajibola, deputy director of the journalism program at the Center for Journalism Innovation and Development.

Political parties are the organizations through which candidates emerge, and she said that citizens may only select from those participating as “political parties are the greatest barrier to women’s emergence in political leadership.”

A farmer tending to the fields.
According to the study’s findings, “landscape outcomes were frequently better when groups included more representation from women.” Illustration by CIAT/NeilPalmer from Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

There won’t be any women to vote for if political parties do not encourage women’s emergence, Ajibola claimed.

However, in a report on food security from 1997, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) stated that women in developing nations “hold the key to the future of the Earth’s agricultural systems and to food and livelihood security through their roles in the selection of seed, the management of small livestock, and the conservation and sustainable use of plant and animal diversity.”

According to the FAO, rural women’s crucial roles as producers and distributors of food connect them directly to the management of genetic resources for food and agriculture and have given them a special understanding of and decision-making role connected to local species and ecosystems, developed over centuries of practice.

The FAO emphasized that most smallholder farmers are women in many regions, and they seek to maintain a broad range of crops, wild flora, and animal breeds and strains that are suited to local circumstances. In addition to ensuring a steady and diverse supply of food, this helps reduce crop failures and animal infections.

The FAO research states that women farmers have been primarily in charge of choosing, enhancing, and adapting plant types in smallholder agriculture. In many areas, women are also in charge of small livestock husbandry, which includes reproduction. Animals are bred for their chosen qualities, which might include adaptations to the environment, such as disease resistance and nutrition availability. According to the paper, these decisions—with women at its core—involve a “sophisticated decision making process,” which was only beginning to acquire awareness at the time.

Women hold harvested yam.
“In smallholder agriculture, women farmers have been largely responsible for the selection, improvement and adaptation of plant varieties,” according to an FAO report. Image by Fintrac Inc. via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).

Obstacles for women in conservation and agriculture

Winnie Lai-Solarin, director of animal husbandry services at Nigeria’s Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, asserted that including women in agricultural production and conservation aids the process since they are more familiar with the ideas. “Women are the embodiment of it all,” she declared.

She used the artificial insemination of animals as an illustration and claimed that including women would help them persuade plenty more people of the value of enhancing their breeds. She emphasized that women may use their understanding to conservation techniques.

She said that, “not because we are women, but because of the roles society has placed on us,” women are “balanced” with unique “multitasking” talents. “By multitasking in this case, we are saying that for increased productivity, we need to improve the genetic performance of what we currently have while also conserving what we are doing.”

The significance of women as decision-makers in agriculture and conservation, according to Oyedele Oyediji, a former registrar and chief executive of the Nigerian Institute of Animal Science, cannot be overstated.

No women, no food, he said, adding that “women perform 70% of all farm work, including planting, harvesting, threshing, and winnowing.” Yet, according to Oyediji, women still have to take care of their children, homes, husbands, and themselves in addition to performing the majority of farm labor.

Winnie Lai-Solarin
Winnie Lai-Solarin, director of animal husbandry services at Nigeria’s Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development. Image by Abdulkareem Mojeed.

Challenges and recommendations

According to Lai-Solarin, the main obstacle facing women in decision-making is that certain individuals seek to undervalue what women are capable of. She emphasized the significance of considering women as more than just wives who ought to stay at home.

According to Lai-Solarin, allowing women chances in decision-making positions will increase their skills in the face of prejudices that cut across cultural boundaries in Nigeria and appear to minimize women’s potential in communities due to cultural or religious limitations. The main obstacle, though, is opportunity, which she claimed women seldom receive and should strive for.

“Agriculture and conservation should be included. Avoid overemphasizing the masculine gender and understating the feminine gender, and the opposite, according to Lai-Solarin.

Everything is still skewed in favor of the male right now, according to Oyediji. Women would carry the grain to the market and sell it after completing all of the farm tasks, including producing, threshing, packaging, and cleaning it. It seems unjust that they will still have to return the sale’s revenues to the man sitting at home due to cultural difficulties.

He asserted that this must change and that innovations are required to lessen the pressure and demands placed on women, ranging from capacity building to access to technology and basic machines that would lessen their physical work and support their continued physical health.

Oyedele Oyediji and Fisayo Kayode
Former registrar and CEO of the Nigerian Institute of Animal Science, Oyedele Oyediji (left). Senior manager at Sahel Consulting Agriculture and Nutrition Limited, Fisayo Kayode (right). By Abdulkareem Mojeed, the pictures.

There has been a deficit in women’s representation in agricultural leadership, according to Fisayo Kayode, a senior manager of Sahel Consulting Agriculture and Nutrition Limited.

However, she noted, “we don’t see women taking the lead when it comes to decision-making at household, community, municipal, state, and sub-regional levels. We have seen women performing a lot of work at production, processing, and distribution aggregate levels.

She said that this is a result of the significant fragmentation of women’s roles in many agricultural value chains, notably in the cattle sector.

According to Kayode, women do not have equal access to financial resources and extension help, which would expand their knowledge and let them to engage more fully in decision-making. They also have less access to resources like land.

Banner image: Immaculée Nyirahabimana, a farmer from Rwanda. Image by CIAT/StephanieMalyon via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

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A. R. Bell, O. S. Rakotonarivo, A. Bhargava, A. Duthie, B. Sargent, W. Zhang,… A. Kipchumba 2023. Economic incentives frequently fall short of bridging the gap between pro-conservation behavior and agricultural output. Earth & Environment Communications, 4(1). doi:10.1038/s43247-023-00689-6

P. Matous (2023). stale and masculine? the significance of “opinion leaders” in agricultural projects is being questioned. doi:10.1007/s10460-023-10415-9. Agriculture and Human Values

The key to ensuring food security is women. (1997). retrieved from the Sustainable Development Department website of the Women and Population Division of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations:


Agriculture, Conservation, Leadership in Conservation, Environment, Environmental Law, Policy, Environmental Politics, Farming, Gender and Conservation, Governance, Fellows and interns at Mongabay, Social Justice and Conservation of Women


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