Division of Labor in Farming

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Division of Labor in Farming

Book excerpt

By: Heather M. Spiro

Date: 1985

Source: Spiro, Heather M.. "Division of Labor in Farming." The Ilora Farm Settlement in Nigeria. West Hartford, Conn.: Kumarian Press, 1985.

About the Author: Heather Spiro studied the Ilora Farm Settlement in Nigeria in 1977, and is also the author of an additional work on the subject, The Fifth World: Women's Rural Activities and Time Budgets in Nigeria.


The Yoruba people have lived in West Africa for several thousand years, and are primarily found in western Nigeria, Benin, and Togo. Today's Yoruba are descendants of the powerful Oyo Kingdom, which broke up into smaller kingdoms following several wars, contributed to in part by the slave trade. Today, the Yoruba people live in many politically independent groups, but continue to share similar religious and cultural traditions. In Nigeria, a country with 128 mil-lion inhabitants, the Yoruba are the third largest ethnic group, with twelve million people. Yoruba women are held in rather high regard, particularly during a celebration called Gelede, when the ideals of patience, control, and reverence are personified as women. Yoruba women gain status by being known for their craftsmanship, trading abilities, and personal wealth.

Most Yoruba reside in rural areas, producing yams and corn as their staple crops. The Yoruba people grow an important cash crop, cocoa, and are responsible for ninety percent of Nigeria's cocoa production. Nigerian women, including the Yoruba, are significantly involved with agriculture production. Similar findings have been noted throughout much of the developing world, indicating that women have traditionally played a crucial role in maintaining agricultural production. However, it was not until the 1970s and 1980s that the role of women in agriculture was truly quantified.

Women are said to be responsible for bush clearing, planting, fertilizing, harvesting, storing, processing, and marketing food. Women are also involved with raising livestock, managing fisheries, and collecting forest products such as mushrooms and snails in Nigeria. Additionally, women are often found to be decision makers regarding the farming activities of a community. Several studies have shown that men in rural areas have shorter working days than women, as men's duties are concentrated solely on agriculture and income generating activities, and men are rarely expected to take on housekeeping chores as well. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (UNFAO) indicates that women in West Africa spend an equal amount of time performing household activities such as childcare, cleaning, and fetching water as they do on farming, processing, and marketing food. It is also reported that men spend twice as much time devoted toward leisure activities on a daily basis than women.



Among the Yoruba the majority of men farm and the majority of women trade. However, while women's role in trading has been described in the literature, their role in farming has been less clearly defined. It has been suggested on the one hand that women's only economic concern is with food processing and distribution, with some craft specialization; that women rarely take part in any phase of agriculture even though many of them live in the farmland area, and that women are almost completely excluded from agricultural work. On the other hand, it has also been reported that wives assist in reaping and preparing crops for the market, and in doing so form a single production unit with their husbands. Still other studies found that although very few women own farms, many of them work on their parents' or husbands' farms, or they are given the rights to use a piece of land.

Research for this study indicated that almost all women spend approximately 25 percent of their time in some farming activity. Table 1 shows the division of labor on both men's and women's farms under shifting cultivation methods used in the region. Men prepare the land through clearing and burning the forest or bush. Women help their husbands with planting, applying fertilizers, and weeding.

The source of required labor will vary somewhat on men's and women's farms. For example, women have to hire some male labor for their own farms to supplement their husband's contribution. In addition, women face compelling demands for their labor on their own farms and their husbands' farms, Given the Yoruba tradition of women having an independent income, they are often considered an "unreliable source of labor" on their husbands' farms, since they are unpaid for this work.

Women may be hired as labor (principally by men) for fertilizer application and harvesting, and occasionally for planting and carrying activities….

Goats, sheep, and poultry are owned by the majority of both men and women for household consumption and ceremonial purposes. Women are, however, responsible for looking after these animals.

Women's Economic Roles

Nigerian women generally, and Yoruba women in particular, plan their economic lives autonomously, separate from their husbands. Divorce is common and can be initiated by either party. Traditionally, income is not pooled or only incompletely pooled between husband and wife. Polygamy is practiced but is not widespread in the study villages. Therefore direct access to security assets is important for both women and men.

Ideally within the Yoruba culture husbands and wives have separate financial responsibilities. It is the husband's responsibility to provide staples such as maize, yam, and cassava from the farm or to provide money to buy them. Husbands are also expected to house their families and provide basic items of clothing. In addition, according to traditional standards which vary somewhat from practice, husbands are expected to pay for children's school and medical fees. They are also expected to give each wife her initial capital for trading or to provide land on which she can grow produce to sell.

Not every husband can meet all these obligations, and women generally contribute beyond their traditional requirements. Women are expected to supply the sauces, stews, and snacks eaten with the staples. Condiments are nutritionally significant components of the diet, often providing essential protein. They are also frequently the more costly items, and therefore women require a fairly constant cash flow to purchase the ingredients. Staples on the other hand are mostly provided in bulk and are preserved naturally. Women use their own money to buy clothes and luxury items for themselves and their children. In addition, both husband and wife have separate responsibilities to their own kin groups and are expected to contribute toward birth, death, and marriage ceremonies and other festivals, as well as to their own ceremonial funds.

A typical economic life of a Yoruba woman in western Nigeria might be sketched as follows. Yoruba women marry at about eighteen years of age and move to their husbands' village. During the early years of marriage women are economically subservient to their husbands. Their domestic duties also include extensive unpaid agricultural labor on their husband's holdings.

These early years are also devoted to organizing the household, and bearing and rearing children. Yorubas strive for a three-year space between children owing to traditional abstinence during an extended breast-feeding period. As children approach school age (age six) mothers start moving more seriously into trading enterprises. Children are net "dependents" on their parents between the ages of six and either fifteen or eighteen, depending on how much schooling they receive.

Women between the ages of 25 and 40 are in their prime years, since their economic authority grows with age and their status as mothers. Their economic responsibilities are increased because they usually need to "supplement" their husbands' income and help provide money for school fees, food and other family necessities. Initial trading capital most often comes from their husbands in the form of cash produce, as indicated above. It also comes from parents or money the women have saved, but rarely if ever from professional money lenders or from saving/loan societies.

As the children approach marriageable age and the women are old enough (in their husband's eyes) to be entrusted with land, some are given land that they farm on their own account. Women control this farming asset in case of divorce. Older women are supported principally by their own activities in trading or farming, and some also receive support from children.

Rural trading activities throughout western Nigeria are carried out through a system of periodic markets, a logical response by both traders and producer-sellers to the need to concentrate effective demand at particular points in time, namely at marketplaces on market day. This allows a rational division of time between production, processing, and trade, and is an advantage to many people carrying on several kinds of gainful activity, simultaneously or in alternation.

Oluwatedo's four-day market (it meets every four days) is open to any trader and is located in the center of the village. Trade is dominated by the local food crops, particularly maize, yam, cassava, and okra, which are destined for the markets in Oyo and Ibadan.

Women traders in Oluwatedo include farmer-traders who usually market their own farm produce on market days; a few wholesalers who buy and sell in bulk, and the retail traders, including those who trade cooked food and provisions on a daily basis. Retailers constitute the majority of grassroot traders in villages and small towns throughout Western Nigeria, selling a mixed portfolio of wares (cloth, plates, tinned food, and other miscellaneous items) and acting as intermediaries throughout the whole marketing chain.

Oluwatedo is like a big supermarket, except that products are not stored under one roof, but in separate households, and trading is not regulated by open and closing times, but by the availability of produce. Traders leave goods with neighbors and children, carrying on more than one activity at a time. They can be farming or traveling while their businesses are being looked after by someone else.


Nigeria's Federal Agricultural Coordinating Unit, in the Department of Agriculture, began a program called Women In Agriculture (WIA) in 1991. The aim of WIA is to integrate women more fully into agricultural development by linking women to training, better sources of financial credit, and improved seed and fertilizer supplies. There are WIA women's groups throughout Nigeria, through which new technologies and agriculture training is distributed to women. There have been higher levels of agricultural output, and more food surplus and income for families involved with WIA groups. Reports have found though, that overall, women in Nigeria, including Yoruba women, continue to receive less farming assistance than men. Many believe gender discrimination continues to hamper the progress toward giving women access to agricultural support. Women generally have less access to land, loans, fertilizers, seeds, extension services, appropriate technology, and up-to-date training. These factors are known to decrease the efficiency and effectiveness of female farmers.

Many non-governmental agencies, and international agricultural development organizations such as UNFAO and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), focus on the important role women play in rural farming communities. These organizations say that contributions of women are vital to the alleviation of poverty in many developing countries. The goal of many development projects is to foster the natural socio-economic potential women have, by providing better access to assets, services, knowledge, technology, and assisting women to become more active in decision-making processes. IFAD says gender equity allows women to express their potential, for the benefit of their families and communities. The World Bank and the UN Development Program have seen the benefits of supporting the training of female extension agents, who are able to successfully target female farmers. Also, these organizations focus on organizing women into cooperatives or other farming groups as a way to increase access to banking credit and marketing opportunities.

Governmental and non-governmental organizations say it is important for development projects to take into account the roles that men and women have in the communities where the projects are implemented. Not taking into account gender specificities may inadvertently increase the already stringent workload women have, disrupting the social systems that are already in place. Also, gender analyses are carried out to ensure a development project does not decrease the control women have over resources, technologies, and other assets.



Olupona, Jacob K. Kingship, Religion, and Rituals in a Nigerian Community : A Phenomenological Study of Ondo Yoruba Festivals. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell International, 1991.


Farinde, A. J., and A. O. Ajayi. "Training Needs of Women Farmers in Livestock Production: Implications for Rural Development in Oyo State of Nigeria." Journal of Social Sciences 10, 3 (2005): 159-164.

Web sites

Conner, Michael. Henry Radford Hope School of Fine Arts, Indiana University. "Cutting to the Essence." 〈http://www.fa.indiana.edu/∼conner/yoruba/cut.html〉 (accessed April 1, 2006).

Das, Manju Dutta. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. "Improving the Relevance and Effectiveness of Agricultural Extension Activities for Women Farmers—An André Mayer Research Study." 〈http://www.fao.org/documents/show_cdr.asp?url_file=/docrep/V4805E/v4805e03.htm〉 (accessed April 1, 2006).

International Fund for Agricultural Devlopment. "Rural Women in IFAD's Projects: The Key to Poverty Alleviation." 〈http://www.ifad.org/pub/other/!brocsch.pdf〉 (accessed April 1, 2006).

International Fund for Agricultural Development. "Why Gender Matters." 〈http://www.ifad.org/gender/approach/gender/index.htm〉 (accessed April 1, 2006).