The former head of the World Food Program, Catherine Bertini, says the needs of African women farmers need to be considered by donors and national governments if the continent is to become food self-sufficient. Ms. Bertini is now a senior fellow in agricultural development with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. She made her remarks at an event for a Washington-based NGO that promotes programs for the poor in the developing world called Women Thrive Worldwide.

Ms. Bertini says women make up more than 80 percent of the labor for food production in Africa. "They are more than a backbone," she says, " they are the body and soul of African agriculture."

She notes that at least two organizations are trying to include women in their project planning. One is the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), which is helping women in cassava-growing areas. They must transport the heavy tubers to the marketplace, where they spend the day until the produce is sold. But AGRA is peppering small communities with cassava processing machines and encouraging women to sell flour. As a result, she says, "there is additional cash being infused into the community, and they don't have to sit all day in the market; they have more time for other things."  

Bertini says another group, a Canadian NGO, is considering the role of women for a project that produces a radio program teaching improved farming methods. She says the radio producers are hoping to reach women by first learning the time at which women farmers listen to the radio. If men and women listen at the same time, she says it's important to learn whether women are able to prevail in choosing the program the family listens to.