The Problem with Drudgery

“A little hard work never hurt anybody.”  It was practically a mantra in the house where I grew up.  My parents were both raised on farms and helped in the fields from an early age.  They were never particularly sympathetic to my claims that I was overworked by a few household chores like making beds and washing dishes.

But too many chores can be a really bad thing, especially when those chores are all-consuming, unnecessary and tedious.  It is this kind of work that can hinder economic development and keep people, especially women, poor.

I’ve never experienced drudgery (much as I tried to convince my parents otherwise) but many people around the world do.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations recently released its 2010-11 “The State of Food and Agriculture” report that looked at this issue, among many others.

The most valuable asset most poor people have is their own labor,” it states.  “But many women are compelled to spend too much of their time in drudgery: fetching water, carrying wood and processing food by hand.”

Investments in simple time and labor saving devices, the FAO concluded, can free up women for more rewarding and productive work.

Maimowna Boire operates a fonio processing machine.

I recently saw the truth of this finding first-hand while visiting an LWR project in Mali.

LWR is working with the women of the Benkadi Ton Association to more efficiently and effectively process fonio. (Not sure what “fonio” is? It’s an indigenous cereal.  Read more about it here.)

LWR helped Benkadi Ton to purchase two simple, but very significant, labor saving machines.  The first separates the grain from the stalk and the second separates the husk from the grain.

Whereas it once took a woman all day to separate a large bag of fonio grain, she can now do it in less than 30 minutes. Previously, dehusking took 15 days per bag. Now it takes only an hour.

Although I’ve called the machines they’re using “labor saving,” what they really do is allow the women to focus on more productive labor.  Before, they had to spend all day processing enough grain for household consumption.  Now that they can efficiently process enough to eat, they also have time to process grain to sell.

“Before, all this work was just household chores,” one woman told me.  “Now I have a job, we all have jobs.”  They’re making money, buying a wider variety of foods and investing in their futures.

Small-scale farms and farm enterprises are the key to economic advancement for many people who are poor.  The women of Benkadi Ton are but one example of how focusing on small farmers can make a big difference in people’s lives and grow their prospects for a more secure future.