Cover Image
close this bookBoiling Point No. 44 - Linking Household Energy with other Development Objectives (ITDG - ITDG, 2000, 44 p.)
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentPreface
View the documentTheme editorial: Integrating household energy into wider development objectives
View the documentInterlinkages of household energy with the environment
View the documentAre energy projects not wanted any more?
View the documentHealth and household energy - the need for better links between research and development
View the documentCooking smoke can increase the risk of tuberculosis
View the documentMonitoring ECO-house performance as if people mattered
View the documentCarbon trading: a new route to funding improved stove programmes?
View the documentGTZ Pages
View the documentThe integrated approach to link household energy with other development objectives - Some organisational experiences from the ProBEC demonstration project in the Hurungwe District of Zimbabwe
View the documentThe ecological cost of increasing dependence on biomass fuels as household energy in rural Nigeria
View the documentWomen in post-harvest operations: reducing the drudgery
View the documentLight... from wind... a journey of will and imagination
View the documentThe Tehesh efficient biomass stove, Tigrai, Ethiopia
View the documentResearch and Development: The 'Turbo' wood-gas stove
View the documentPublications
View the documentWhat's happening in household energy?
View the documentITDG energy news

Women in post-harvest operations: reducing the drudgery

By Ann Gordon, Tony Swetman and Kerry Albright, Natural Resources Institute, Medway University Campus, Central Avenue, Chathams Maritime, Kent, ME4 4TB, UK.

Les femmes et les activitpost-rlte; atter les corv

La transformation a l'aide de procs manuels des produits de rlte incombe souvent aux femmes, avec l'aide, parfois, des enfants. Beaucoup de femmes en milieu rural travaillent jusqu'6 heures par jour combinant activitdomestiques, de production agricole et activitgratrices de revenu. Cet article donne un aperdes activitmanuelles post-rltes. Il met en relief des expences et technologies visant tter les taches pbles.


Traditional, manual food processing and preparation activities are widespread in developing countries. These tasks often fall to women, sometimes with the assistance of children. Many rural women work a 16-hour day, trying to balance competing demands in agricultural production, household chores and income generation.

This article concerns the expenditure of human energy. It provides an overview of manual post-harvest activities. It reviews experience with interventions and technologies intended to reduce drudgery.

Defining drudgery

Drudgery can be defined by its time-consuming, repetitive and arduous nature. For rural women, an additional dimension is multitasking, where other activities create constant interruptions. Many traditional post-harvest activities can be described as drudgery: threshing and winnowing, de-hulling, grinding and pounding, preparation of food and processed products, marketing and load-carrying (Figure 1). If these provide income, the work is invariably poorly paid.

Figure 1: Handpounding grain

Lynda Hammond: NRI

Trends in manual post-harvest activities

Throughout the developing world, manual processing of starchy staples, beans and oilseeds is widespread. These crops include rice, maize, sorghum, millet, wheat, roots and tubers (particularly cassava), groundnuts - and other crops that are locally important. Although manual processing declines with urbanisation and income growth, millions of people in rural areas still depend on these traditional processes.

These manual activities use human energy in two ways: they are arduous and time-consuming. Reducing arduous activities is sometimes more important than saving time. For instance, women often prefer custom-milling despite the walking and waiting time. Walking and waiting may even be welcomed if they give an opportunity for social interaction.

Figure 2: Child carrying water

Lynda Hammond: NRI

Case study: Sorghum de-hulling in Tanzania

Some varieties of sorghum are manually de-hulled by women and children to make the grain more palatable. This laborious task often falls to weaker women not engaged in other activities.

A DfID-funded project enabled researchers at NRI, working in collaboration with staff of the Agricultural Research Institutes at Ilonga and Ukiriguru, and Sokoine University of Agriculture, to examine the traditional de-hulling process in detail. Women were asked how the task could be modified to relieve drudgery. This led to the development of a prototype rotary hand-operated de-huller.

The de-huller was demonstrated in five villages. Women and men were encouraged to try the de-huller themselves. Women found the machine easy to use and thought the grain to be at least as good as hand-pounded grain. The de-huller required less strength to operate.

The de-huller is now being further developed, based on this feedback. Currently, it can process around 6 Kg of sorghum per hour, but could be motorized to increase capacity.

Case Study: Cassava chipping in Ghana

Cassava is an important food security and income-generating crop in Ghana. Cassava chips are sold for use in animal feed both locally and in the European Union. A widely-used hand-operated chipping machine was evaluated. It was know that using the machine resulted in drudgery and postural discomfort. Six farmers and six new users took part in the study during which physical measurements were taken (heart rate, level of discomfort etc.). Using an iterative process, modifications were made which reduced discomfort and physical strain. This allowed a faster work-rate for the new users, and was preferred by all. This shows the way in which agricultural machinery can be improved, at low cost, by employing a participatory and iterative approach, and by paying close attention to human factors. Improving the machine so that the posture adopted by the operator was better, reduced physical strain and discomfort.

The most widespread arduous post-harvest activities are:

· milling and de-hulling
· walking with loads, especially up-hill
· some oilseed processing activities, such as coconut and palm oil processing

Common time-using activities include walking, waiting (at mills, markets and pumps), manual milling and pounding, and selected income generating activities (eg oil processing and brewing).

Data on children's involvement in these activities are scarce and often contradictory. However, it would appear that rural children are more likely to work than urban children, they start work at an earlier age (between 5 and 7 years) and they spend more of their time working (Figure 2). Girls are especially likely to start work earlier and to miss school. Female-headed households are more dependent on child labour.

Agricultural production patterns affect the timing of peak labour demands and the nature of the tasks involved. For instance, in some parts of West Africa, excessive rainy season demands on women's time often precludes the processing of shea nuts, so the nuts are sold raw despite the wish to generate additional income. New crops may require more processing or different techniques. In some parts of Mali, for example, maize is a useful hungry season crop, but it is more difficult to process manually than sorghum and millet. In urban areas maize is custom-milled.

In rural areas, affordability is a key constraint to the use of mechanised processes: many women lack cash to pay for processing; mechanical processing in rural areas is often relatively expensive. Also, although manual processes take up valuable time, some (such as groundnut shelling) can be fitted in around other chores or carried out by older women or children. Moreover, some informal group processing activities may provide a welcome opportunity for discussion and information exchange amongst women.

In urban areas, custom mills are more widely used because: mains electricity reduces processing costs; higher population density increases mill utilisation levels, hence reducing the cost per client; and additional marketing and employment opportunities influence women's capacity and willingness to replace manual processes with custom-milling. In rural areas, the reverse is true -and it may also be difficult or costly to obtain spare parts or fuel.

However, traditional products are not necessarily regarded as inferior in urban areas, and there is often increased demand for convenience products and street foods.

Reducing the drudgery: lessons from experience

A number of key issues and lessons have been highlighted through the considerable experience of NGOs and development agencies in developing appropriate technology:

· reducing drudgery per se is not necessarily what women want - increasing their productivity may be a higher priority

· genuinely participatory technology development is needed to identify needs and design innovations that are affordable, socially acceptable, suited to their skills, and within their sphere of control/influence: A goo example is given in the cassava chiupping case study

· ill-considered labour-saving interventions may deprive women of an important income source

· release from certain chores may offer women little benefit if they are consequently obliged to spend more time on say, their husbands' plots

· saving energy is often considered by women to be more important than saving time -but in busy months, time may also be at a premium

· seasonal analysis is very important because of the sharp seasonal differences in labour demands.

Figure 3: Shea processing is labour intensive

Graham Anstee: NRI

A review of experience in technology development reveals six recurrent themes, whose lessons merit consideration in any new interventions.

1. Affordability. Realistic estimates of running costs, as well as careful analysis of willingness and ability to pay, are needed. Sharply defined seasons and dispersed production contribute to low utilisation and high costs of mechanised technology.

2. Group enterprise. This may seem to offer a solution to the twin problems of achieving economies of scale and the absence of a commercial custom operation. However, jointly operated processing operations are often problematic because groups may lack sufficient cohesion, management experience and marketing skills - resulting in high running costs and losses. Capacity-building needs are often under-estimated.

3. Commercial involvement. Cooperation between development agencies and the private sector can reap important rewards in terms of technology promotion and uptake, and long-term sustainability. However, misunderstandings and the time-consuming nature of such collaboration means it is often a low priority.

4. Participatory technology development. Where women are involved in trials, their feedback may not provide accurate data on time or energy savings, but it will probably provide a better indicator of eventual uptake. This is illustrated by the sorghum de-hulling case study.

In contrast to this, a mechanical expeller was introduced, with minimal consultation, for groundnut processing in Burkina Faso. Oil yields were higher but the residue could not be used to make the traditional by-product cookies - so the income generated was less.

5. Reduced drudgery or depriving the poorest women of work? A drudgery-reducing technology may eliminate an important source of income for poor women. For example, in Mali, poor women earn income by manually de-hulling coarse grains. The introduction of mechanical de-hullers would deprive them of income, whilst benefits would accrue to higher-income groups able to pay for de-hulling.

6. Access to credit, training and markets. Consideration of how these soft technologies determine who benefits from new hardware, is often at least as important as hardware development itself.

The needs of the poorest women

Where interventions are intended to benefit the poorest women, attention should be focused on particular issues:

· the needs of female-headed households, which feature disproportionately amongst the poor
· crops and processes used in marginal areas
· carrying fuel and water, because so many women are affected
· how poor women earn income - so that new technology really does benefit them
· understanding the broader processes which determine how benefits are distributed
· household level and informal sector activities, where the poorest people earn their living.


Despite rapid urbanisation and improvements in transport, large numbers of poor women live in rural areas where 'modern' technology is unavailable or unaffordable. Although technical innovation and adaptation are important, very many factors affect women's ability to benefit from technological change - and these are often very location-specific. Women will not benefit from hardware development unless this nexus of technical, institutional and socio-economic issues is addressed.

The authors are respectively agricultural economist, food technologist and socio-political researcher at the Natural Resources Institute, Chatham, ME4 4TB, UK. This article draws on a research strategy paper prepared for the Crop Post-Harvest Research Programme, United Kingdom Department for International Development (DFID), for the benefit of developing countries. The views expressed here are not necessarily those of DFID.