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Labor Saving Strategies and Innovations for Women Smallholder Farmers (Round 11)



Three quarters of the world’s poorest people get their food and income from farming small plots of land – typically the size of a football field or smaller – and most of them labor under difficult conditions. In the developing world, the majority of these smallholder farmers are women. They grow a diversity of local crops and livestock species and must contend with pests, diseases and drought, along with unproductive soils and a lack of irrigation. Productivity on these plots in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) and South Asia is extremely low compared to the rest of the world, both in terms of yield and in terms of labor.

Low labor productivity undermines potential food production, stifles income growth from the lack of surplus and keeps many farming families impoverished, hungry and undernourished. Current demographic shifts driven by male outmigration to urban centers leave women with the burden of managing most farm and household chores. She and family members tending the farm need technologies that leverage what time she can devote to food production, as her day is likely already overfilled with a combination of caring for children and ill or infirm family members, and performing household tasks as well as farm tasks.[1] Furthermore, she herself may be undernourished or ill, limiting her farming power.


Governments, the private sector, and the donor community have recognized the need to increase both land and labor productivity and have invested in many labor saving innovations for smallholder farmers for years. However, a complex and insidious mix of economic, social and technical issues has constrained widespread adoption of labor-saving innovations. To illustrate:

  • Technologies and tools have often been designed without sufficient farmer preferences and input in design.
  • The particular needs of women farmers are generally ignored.
  • There has been a lack of consideration for local manufacturing, supply chain inputs and provision for maintenance. When technologies require repair, local blacksmiths cannot provide parts, fabrication or repair services, and the tool becomes redundant while at the same time too costly to replace outright.
  • Demand for the intensification of agriculture and, in turn, for increasing labor productivity, is low in land abundant developing countries, as in many countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Studies suggest that consumer demand for innovations that save labor are more likely to be found in areas with high population density and a better enabling environment for agricultural production.
  • Small farmer willingness and ability to pay for technologies or innovations are not well understood across regions. In some cases, the value proposition of women farmers “saving time” as a result of purchasing a labor-saving innovation is not a priority for male decision makers in the household.
  • In some cultural contexts, some labor-saving tools potentially available to women farmers (including draught power or tractor power) may be culturally inappropriate for her use. At the same time, demographic changes in rural areas may help loosen constraining cultural norms to allow more role flexibility in farm operations, thus some ideas may be worth revisiting.[2]

Specific examples of roadblocks to adoption of labor-saving innovations:

  • Tariffs on manufactured replacement parts can sometimes be incredibly costly, limiting farmers’ ability to pay for upkeep and maintenance.
  • The design of a treadle pump did not take into account the fact that women in many areas are culturally prohibited from riding bicycles; the motion of the treadle pump too closely resembled the motion of pedaling a bicycle, and women refused to adopt it. This was rectified through a more participatory design process involving women, resulting in a revised prototype.
  • Plough designs introduced in parts of Africa did not take into account women’s preferences and capabilities, and utilized draught animal species that women, according to cultural norms, could not use.
  • There remains a cultural taboo in many regions of sub-Saharan Africa against standing upright during farming operations, in tasks such as weeding, because standing vertical is associated with lazy behavior. Thus attempts to introduce long handled hoes to women (to replace short-handled hoes which cause them to bend over during weeding) have been met with failure. 


The aim of this call is to solicit innovative, holistic solutions to boost labor productivity of smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa with a specific emphasis on increasing the productivity of women farmers’ labor. We encourage researchers and entrepreneurs - especially those working outside of agricultural development - to review what has not worked in the past in order to better understand the various constraints to farmer adoption of labor saving innovations and to generate ideas that will revolutionize current approaches to crop protection, management and harvesting.

We certainly encourage new thinking in technical innovation in this space, and because many of the constraints to adoption of these innovations appear to be multi-disciplinary, we will also welcome innovation in – or across – all four areas of focus detailed below. Your submission may address one or more of these categories:

  1. New or adapted labor-saving technologies that take into consideration cost, maintenance, upkeep and farmer needs in the design.
  2. Improved practices that save labor in land preparation, seeding, weeding, pest control, tillage, harvest and post-harvest.
  3. Business and/or distribution models that positively affect incentives for farmer adoption of labor saving devices.
  4. Behavior change strategies that tackle socio-cultural and/or gender constraints to adoption of labor saving innovations.
  5. Novel and low cost methods in marketing approaches for technologies that have demonstrated labor saving impact for women through piloting or beta testing.  

What We Are Looking For:

To be considered, proposals must closely align with the goals and priorities of the foundation’s Agricultural Development team. As such, we are looking for ideas that: 

  • Substantially increase the labor productivity of smallholder farmers in developing countries within the next 10-20 years;
  • Demonstrate an understanding of farmer preferences and needs - in particular women farmers’ unique and changing needs;
  • Target labor saving in the stages of the production system that are largely undertaken by human power and require significant human control: land preparation, weeding, pest control, seeding, tillage, harvest and post-harvest;
  • Have potential applicability to one or more of the following crops or livestock species: maize, wheat, rice, millet, sorghum, cassava, sweet potatoes, yams, beans, cowpeas, chickpeas, and groundnuts, cows, chickens, goats, or buffalo;
  • Are low cost, practical and can be fabricated in country and maintained/repaired locally;
  • Can be adapted to local context but also used broadly across regions, geographies and contexts;
  • Convey a clear and testable hypothesis that explains how your innovation will decrease labor requirements and result in a high likelihood of adoption, and
  • Acknowledge and demonstrate an understanding of what has not worked in the past, and the advantage of the current proposal.

Proposals must (i) demonstrate how an understanding of farmers’ needs and perspective informed the design of the solution, (ii) include a basic plan that describes the manufacturing, delivery, upkeep and maintenance (if a physically engineered solution), and (iii) detail how usership and adoption will be measured over time.

Proposals must clearly articulate the labor saving potential of their strategy or innovation.

A few examples of what we will consider for funding:

  • Development and in-country testing of low-cost hand implements or simple machines that increase labor productivity (this might include but is not limited to seeders, weeders, threshing and winnowing tools, and appropriate animal-powered machinery, all having innovative ergonomic or mechanical advantage);
  • Awareness campaigns targeting inefficiency of gender norms related to using draught power;
  • Novel practices or technologies that decrease labor expenditure for women in weeding row crops;
  • Innovative financing solutions to incentivize smallholder uptake of new labor saving innovations;
  • Equipment maintenance schemes;
  • Conservation agriculture projects that explicitly demonstrate immediate labor saving potential; 
  • Other transformative labor-saving solutions not highlighted here.

We will not consider funding for:

  • Ideas that are not directly relevant to smallholder farmers in developing countries;
  • Ideas that are not applicable to the following crops or livestock species: maize, wheat, rice, millet, sorghum, cassava, sweet potatoes, yams, beans, cowpeas, chickpeas, groundnuts, cows, chickens, goats or buffalo;
  • Ideas that do not demonstrate a labor-saving effect;
  • Models that require long-term financial subsidies;
  • Machinery requiring more than 10 horsepower;
  • Treadle pumps;
  • Proposals either to develop novel pesticides or to promote the uptake of existing pesticides;
  • Marketing approaches that focus on an untested or inappropriate technology or innovation;
  • General knowledge extension or educational programs;
  • Desk studies (i.e. theoretical research or literature reviews);
  • Holistic or ongoing development projects.


[1] Sims, Brian, and Josef Kienzle. "Farm power and mechanization for small farms in sub-Saharan Africa." FAO Agricultural and Food Engineering Technical Report. Issue 3. 2006.

[2] The State of Food and Agriculture: Women in Agriculture, Closing the Gender Gap in Development. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2011

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