Photo courtesy of Neil Palmer, CIAT

Dr. Maction Komwa from George Mason University is a visiting scientist at HarvestChoice, IFPRI. The team recently sat down with Maction and discussed his research looking into labor constraints in African agriculture. The results are this blog post describing some of his findings and an upcoming inclusion in HarvestChoice’s flagship study on agricultural constraints in sub-Saharan Africa.

When discussing farm labor it is easy to think -– that is if you happen to be western-minded like me — of an endless, boundless energy; as long as there is a sizable labor force and it’s relatively inexpensive to tap into, there are few constraints. But who makes up the force within sub-Saharan Africa's rural farm communities? If it is primarily family, what is the socioeconomic status of households and how many are affected by chronic hunger, illness, or family break ups? Are farm households headed by widows, widowers, or orphans? And how does gender come into play? In short, how does culture and being human affect labor constraints across the heterogeneous landscape of sub-Saharan Africa?

The most labor intensive times for both men and women farmers in rural Africa happen during plant preparation and weeding. These are both physically demanding activities and poor farmers often lack sophisticated tools and herbicides designed to ease the amount of human energy required. Additionally, much of Africa experiences a hungry season which overlaps laborious periods in farming. A debilitating health crisis, such as HIV/AIDS, can further constrain household farm labor and diminish agricultural output.

Parker, Jacobsen, & Komwa (2009) illustrate the downward spiral of farm households in sub-Saharan Africa impacted by the HIV/AIDS pandemic (see Figure 1):

[The disease] has eroded the ability of rural households to produce food and other agricultural products, to generate income, and to care for and feed family members…. HIV/AIDS affects not only the health of infected individuals, but the socioeconomic status of the individuals, their families, and their broader community. In addition to the direct costs of paying for medical care, HIV-affected households experience a loss of labor productivity both from household members who are ill and from their caregivers. In rural areas where farming is the primary source of income and food, decreases in household labor supply can lead directly to reductions in the nutritional status of all household members…. Households that begin with lower levels of human capital, capacity for agricultural productivity, and available labor are especially vulnerable for falling into a downward spiral deterioration of household social welfare and livelihoods following HIV/AIDS infection.

Figure 1. Model of the interrelationships between HIV/AIDS, labor, agriculture, food, security, and health (from Parker et al., 2009).

In sub-Saharan Africa the role of caregiver is typically filled by women and girls and takes precedence over other household duties such as planting and weeding. Decreases in female labor due to illness or caretaking have a particularly large impact on agricultural production since women are responsible for most agricultural activities. Additionally, HIV/AIDS is restructuring many households into widow- and child-headed households. Changes in the types of crops produced and diminished agricultural output in affected households are common. Families with multiple wives and many children or those who can afford to hire outside labor are less likely to experience a change in cropping patterns and agricultural productivity.

Although the above study was particular to rural southeastern Uganda, the results are consistent with other studies throughout sub-Saharan Africa. Constraints in labor can create a "downward spiral of livelihood degradation for vulnerable [farm] households". To address these challenges, local communities need to be involved with NGOs and their government.

Read the full report here including the authors' suggestions for targeted interventions.


HarvestChoice, 2013. "Labor Constraints in sub-Saharan African Farm Households." International Food Policy Research Institute, Washington, DC., and University of Minnesota, St. Paul, MN. Available online at

Jul 23, 2013