How much of the work do women contribute to agriculture in Africa? Over the past decades, “60-80 percent” is the range that has regularly popped up–in celebrity speeches, policy conferences and international publications alike. This is what theWashington Post most recently referred to as a zombie statistic – a figure with little empirical verification that never seems to die out, but resurrects itself repeatedly in discussions and debates. Some forensics suggest that the figure can  be traced back to an undocumented, 1972 quote found in a more general study of women’s contribution to development,   “Few persons would argue against the estimate that women are responsible for 60-80 [percent] of the agricultural labour supplied on the continent of Africa.” (United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, 1972, p. 359). It has gone on to live its own life ever since. Intrigued by this rather unusually high number, we set out to revisit this statistic using nationally-representative data from six Sub-Saharan countries,  collected under the Living Standards Measurement Study – Integrated Surveys on Agriculture Initiative (LSMS-ISA). Together, they represent 40 percent of SSA’s population.

The aforementioned common wisdom has been at the core of efforts motivating alleviation of gender differences in African agriculture. There is indeed evidence (ungated and gated sources) of significant gender gaps in agricultural productivity in Africa, ranging from 4 to 25 percent. This evidence, together with the commonly held beliefs regarding African women’s contribution to agriculture, has provided ample motivation to advocate for policies that raise agricultural productivity for African women. The pursuit of this goal is not only seen as important for empowering  women in Africa and improving the development outcomes for the next generation, but also for increasing Africa’s overall food supply.

Turns out that women contribute less than half of the labor to crop production, 40 percent on average across the six African countries studied, to be precise. This estimate is obtained using detailed household survey information about the labor input of each household member on each plot cultivated. There are clear differences across countries: women’s labor contribution to agriculture is slightly above 50 percent in Uganda, Tanzania and Malawi, and substantially lower in Nigeria (37 percent), Ethiopia (29 percent) and Niger (24 percent). However, in all cases it is well below the 60-80 percent range that is still widely quoted. There is no systematic difference across countries by crop type (cash versus staple crop) or activity (planting, weeding, harvesting), but female labor shares do tend to be higher when women own a larger share of the land and, surprisingly, also when they are more educated. Also, accounting for the gender and knowledge profile of the respondents does not meaningfully change the predicted female labor shares.


Source: Palacios-Lopez, Christiaensen, Kilic (2015)

So, what does this mean? First, the lower than expected female labor shares do not, as such, support disproportionate focus on female farmers to boost crop production. Concerted policy attention on women to boost agricultural output in Africa could still be argued for based on the gender gap in land productivity (estimated at 25 percent in Malawi, though less in other countries). Nonetheless, here as well, caution remains counseled. These gaps are largely calculated based on differences in land productivity between male- and female-managed plots. With at most 25 percent of the plots being female managed and productivity differences typically below 25 percent, closing the gender productivity gap would increase overall supply by 6.25 percent at most.  There may be many other reasons to close the productivity gap, such as raising women’s empowerment, but boosting aggregate agricultural supply does not seem to one of them.

Second, the findings serve as an important warning for zombie statistics and cross-country generalizations. In hindsight, the 60-80 percent range should have raised questions long time ago. With only 50 percent of the population being female, and the majority of rural African households still engaged in agriculture, what would all the men be doing? It may obviously be true in certain settings and among certain population groups for women to provide the lion share of the labor in agriculture. But it is hard to believe this would hold systematically across countries and settings within countries. In the absence of hard data to refute such perceptions, zombie statistics will live on, underscoring the importance of nationally representative household surveys such as the LSMS-ISA.

But a real data revolution will be needed to get rid of the many possible zombie statistics. For example, what about the common perception that average fertilizer use per hectare is only 13 kg compared with about 120 kg in OECD countries? Also a zombie statistic? Stay tuned for the next blog in this myth-busting series.

This post first appeared on The World Bank Africa Can End Poverty Blog.

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Author: Luc Christiaensen is a Senior Economist in the Development Research Group of the World Bank. Talip Kilic is a Senior Economist with the Living Standards Measurement Study (LSMS) team in the Development Research Group of the World Bank. Amparo Palacios-Lopez is an Economist, Development Economics and Chief Economist.

Image: A girl selling apples by the roadside waits for customers just outside the Angolan city of Lubango. REUTERS/Finbarr O’Reilly