Innovating? Consider gender

Dr. Nathalie Me-Nsope conducts research in Golomoti, Malawi. Image: Stephanie White.

By Katie Deska

Gender relations, roles, responsibilities, influence and ownership of assets help decide if an innovation works.

Without considering them, innovators risk designing a technology unsuited to those who use it.

“What may be appropriate for men may not necessarily be appropriate for women and vice versa,” said Dr. Nathalie Me-Nsope, an expert in gender roles at Michigan State University’s Global Center for Food Systems Innovation.

Usually food system designers consider smallholder farmers who are identical in preferences, needs and scale of operations,  she said. But users of a potential innovation have disparate needs and preferences. Gender is one of the factors that explains them.

In her recent report, Gender Practice in Food Systems Innovations: Approaches, Lessons and Challenges, Me-Nsope discusses how food systems innovators’ attention to gender affected six projects funded by the Global Center for Food Systems Innovation:

Me-Nsope helped build the grantees’ capacity to analyze gender influences. She then discussed with them the effectiveness of their gender integration efforts.

Gender analysis adds value to research and increases the likelihood that innovations will reduce poverty and promote nutrition, food security and sustainability, she said

Gender integration is often viewed on a continuum that includes exploitation, accommodation and transformation. In exploitative innovations, innovators manipulate gender inequalities to their advantage.

In accommodation projects, researchers may develop strategies to work within the established gender norms. These projects often acknowledge gender differences but not advance relations toward equality.

In transformation projects, innovators work to close the gap on gender disparities.

You can’t always do a gender analysis before jumping into a project, Me-Nsope said. But even doing one midway can prevent unintended consequences.

“Then, once the gender analysis is completed, the findings should be incorporated throughout the innovation cycle — from design to implementation to the monitoring and evaluation stage,” she said.

In her report, Me-Nsope summarizes how GCFSI teams approached the gender analysis.

Better Late Than Never

Focused on harnessing the power of anaerobic digestion, innovators Rebecca Larson, of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Vianney Tumwesige, CEO of the Ugandan energy company Green Heat, created a dual-fuel stove that runs on biogas and electricity. They first talked with officials from a primary school near Kampala where they planned to install a stove.

Rebecca Larson (center), with project partners near Kampala, Uganda.

“Women are the ones who would use the stove for cooking and be responsible for operating the biogas system, but they weren’t attending the meetings and couldn’t give their input,” Me-Nsope said.

The researchers missed the opportunity to conduct an early gender analysis, but they identified that they needed to speak directly with women. They returned to interview them and then modified the stove and system to meet the women’s needs.

Another component of the project required a digester that produces nutrient-rich fertilizer, a new and valuable product for system users. But it initially required lots of water, creating additional hard work for young boys traditionally responsible for water collection. To avoid turning a solution into a new problem, innovators designed a solid-liquid separation unit that recycles water. It eliminated the need for frequent water collection, minimizing labor.

“While gender analyses often discover issues facing women, a well-done analysis accounts for constraints, disadvantages and inequalities facing both genders,” said Me-Nsope. “In this situation, it was young boys who were inadvertently disadvantaged.”

Enhancing human-centered design

MSU researchers Adam Lyman and Ronald Averill developed a human-powered bean thresher to improve processing for Zambian women.

“They wanted to give women an opportunity to earn more money from their beans,” Me-Nsope said.

The innovators conducted a gender analysis before and during the first draft of the technology, learning who is involved in bean production and processing and their needs and preferences.

They learned that men preferred a motor/diesel-powered bean thresher, but women were less excited about such a machine. Building one would have excluded women from using it.

The gender analysis enhanced the innovators’ human-centered design approach. The needs and preferences of the users were revealed and the design was adjusted.

Researchers reveal transformative findings

Another team of GCFSI researchers worked with beekeepers in Kenya to improve honey production. Maryann Frazier of Pennsylvania State University and Benjamin Muli of South Eastern Kenya University learned that beekeeping historically has been restricted to men.

One reason is that it is commonly believed that hives high in the trees yield significant honey, but it is considered inappropriate for women to climb trees. Also, beehives are often deep in the forests, and the honey harvesting takes place at night. It is considered inappropriate for women to be far from home and out at night.

But Muli and Frazier discovered that the height of the hive does not have a significant impact on honey production.

“Their data undermines a long-standing assumption about women and heights and nights, and, as a result, the findings from their research lifts a long-existing barrier to access that women faced,” said Me-Nsope. And that means women could gain greater control over income.

An in-depth evaluation determines the long-term impact of an innovation on gender relations. Conducting such a study provides researchers with a deeper understanding of the success of a solution to a food systems challenge.

“If we don’t pay attention to gender issues, we might end up with a wicked problem in which an innovation solves one problem but creates a new one,” said Me-Nsope.

For more about gender integration and best practices for conducting a gender analysis, view Me-Nsope’s report, Gender Practice in Food Systems Innovations: Approaches, Lessons and Challenges, on GCFSI’s website. Reach out on Twitter to @me_nsope and @GCFSI.

A version of this story first appeared on AgriLinks.

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