Esther Njuguna-Mungai,
Gender Research Scientist, CGIAR Research Program on Grain Legumes

The 2016 International Year of Pulses has brought global attention to the important roles that pulses play in food, environment, and livelihood systems around the world. Smallholder farmers grow a significant portion of pulse crops and 67% of global pulse production happens in Africa and Asia. Through different value chains, pulses are moved from areas of production to areas of consumption around the globe.

Pulse value chains are highly diverse, ranging from long-distance commodity export to local markets featuring traditional landraces. All pulse value chain actors are important, and the efficacy and equity of these value chains depends on a better understanding of their major actors, including smallholder farmers. It is equally important to recognize that there are many different types smallholder farmers participating in pulse value chains. 

As a gender scientist, my work focuses on smallholders in developing countries.  Smallholders are diverse and work in heterogeneous contexts. My work highlights the unique challenges faced by and opportunities available to women and youth in agriculture. In many parts of the world, pulse crops are central to women’s ability to meet their household nutrition needs and offer possibilities for youth agri-enterprise.

Pulse crops have traditionally been identified as women’s crops in many smallholder-farming communities in sub-Saharan Africa. What does this mean in practice? Take West Africa for example. Men are responsible for providing a staple cereal crop to the household.  Meals are usually based on the staple cereal served with a legume-based or vegetable-based ‘sauce.’  In this context, women have the responsibility of providing the ‘sauce’ for their households.  They grow pulses and vegetables in gardens separate from those tended by men.  The case is slightly different in East Africa, where, most often, women are responsible for planting, weeding, harvesting, and processing pulse crops. They are, in fact, in charge of the most labor-intensive activities.  Among different communities in Africa, identifying pulses as a ‘women’s crop’ means that women farmers have considerable autonomy in the way they manage decisions around food security for their households, the health of their family, and the income that they generate. While pulse crops may not generate large cash flows, this income plays a significant role in meeting basic household needs and contributing to improved health and education. 

So why does all of this matter? What could happen to this small, but significant resource currently managed by women and are there any negative implications for the household economy and nutrition if we invest in more globalized pulse value chains? One concern is that women could lose their control over pulse production to the men in their communities as these pulse value chains develop. This could have a domino effect on both household nutrition and investment in education.   

In the case of pulses, investments designed to ‘modernize’ pulse value chains should be paired with investment in long-term monitoring of the roles played by women and young people, not forgetting other marginalized groups.  Where there are indicators that these social groups are losing their roles in pulse utilization, or the associated nutritional and food security benefits, corrective interventions need to implemented. 

Through GENNOVATE, a global study involving several CGIAR Research Programs, researchers are studying the interaction between gender, social norms and innovations. We are surveying young people to better understand their goals and aspirations. Over and over again, in different countries and agro-ecologies, what we hear most often is that young people want to leave agriculture because it is not lucrative enough. This dynamic has repercussions for both current and future generations as needs for nutritious foods in cities escalates – who will grow these foods?

The message that we need to make agriculture attractive for young people could not be clearer. How do we do this? Investments in research and development (R&D) that help pulse value chains to be more profitable is a key part of the solution. R&D could focus on value addition opportunities, such as post-production handling, pre-processing, and food product manufacture for regional markets, segments of the value chain that could attract the youth. Future certification processes should include an emphasis on how well pulse value chains deliver income benefits for young people. Action needs to be taken sooner rather than later. To meet growing demand as cities continue to grow and expand, opportunities for women and youth must be considered and recognized. 

Pulses are clearly part of the answer and therefore must not be ignored. In looking at how pulse agriculture could play a pivotal role in a sustainable food future, gender, social and cultural norms too must be recognized and heeded. 

The 10-Year Research Strategy for Pulse Crops notes that interventions in value chains will produce a combination of positive and negative effects and that social norms, such as gender roles in different aspects of food production and marketing, will influence the nature of these effects. The Research Strategy calls for participatory, multi-actor, multi-disciplinary research modes that integrate social science and gender dimensions.