How gender norms prevent women from using technology to shell maize in Tanzania

7 May 2021

“Shelling maize by hand is an easy task and should be left to women. Men should do tough jobs”, said an agro-dealer from Central Tanzania in 2018 during an interview.  Gundula Fischer, a gender expert at IITA, picked up on this topic; her research tells a different story.

Fischer investigated the drudgery of maize shelling among 400 men and women farmers in Kongwa, Kiteto, and Babati districts in Tanzania. Farmers in her study assessed the drudgery of each task in maize cultivation, from land preparation to selling the processed grain. They rated manual shelling as the most tedious task, followed by weeding and land preparation. In contrast, shelling maize with a machine was regarded as easy as drying maize in the homestead.

How gender norms prevent women from using technology to shell maize in Tanzania
Rural women in Kongwa District, Tanzania, using a low-cost maize thresher run by a diesel engine. (Photo: C. Mutungi/IITA).

Although mechanized maize shelling has become more common in Tanzania over the past decade, women often cannot escape the tedious job of manual shelling. This is because men, as household heads, decide whether or not a shelling machine is hired. Fischer found out that the more women there are in a household, the more men are inclined to have women shell the maize by hand. Women’s labor relief can only be ensured if male-biased decision-making in households is redressed.

Where organizations introduced shelling machines for management by farmer groups, women were frequently less involved in machine operation.

“In their upbringing, women often learn that whenever machines are used for a job, it is not their job. So, there is this fear that restricts their benefits. We need women champions in this regard”, explains a Tanzanian female agricultural engineer.

Apart from the cultural conception that men should operate machines, there is another obstacle women farmers face; machine design often does not consider the needs of different user groups.

“We need machines that can be easily started and operated,”said the same agricultural engineer, also hinting at the demand of elderly farmers.

Based on these and other study results, Fischer proposes entry points for more equitable and sustainable mechanization—using maize shelling as a case in point. Gender norms that favor imbalanced household decision-making or deem women as “unsuitable” for machine operations need redress. If mechanization goes hand-in-hand with gender-transformative changes within households and at the community, market, and government levels, it will be sustainable, she writes.

The study was published recently in the paper “Sustainable and equitable agricultural mechanization? A gendered perspective on maize shelling” in Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems.