The gender imbalances in Ethiopia’s dairy value chains

Blog Women's Economic Empowerment

Traditional gender roles that often inhibit women’s agency and access to resources also have the ability to affect their roles in employment. We study the gendered division of labour in dairy value chains in Ethiopia to examine the activities that women are involved in and how involvement differs across farms. Our results show that as dairy farms increase in size and gain proximity to urban areas, women’s involvement diminishes but men’s increases. 

Value chains in developing countries are changing rapidly, mainly due to fast economic growth and rapid urbanisation. In Ethiopia’s dairy sector, this pattern similarly holds, but with important gender dimensions that influence the size and location of the country’s dairy farmers. Despite increasing female education and declining fertility rates, women in developing countries are still less likely to be involved in economic activities that have larger returns. Separately, in Ethiopia, larger and more urbanised farms are participating in marketing of economically high value dairy (e.g., fresh milk), while smaller and more remote farms participate in economically less valued dairy (e.g., butter or cheese) products. Gender differences intersect with production and marketing processes systematically, which we explore through the association of gender and farm sizes and access to market in the dairy sector in Ethiopia.  

For this analysis, we rely on International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and Ethiopian Strategic Support Programme’s (ESSP) unique primary survey undertaken from October to November 2018 across the dairy value chain supplying Addis Ababa, the capital and largest urban centre in the country. The survey covers roughly 1,000 dairy farms of different sizes and included data on gender division of labor within the household. This allows us to go beyond analysis that can only distinguish between male- and female-headed households. Using this data, we discuss the role of women in dairy processing activities and analyse labour gender/age divisions by location and farm size. 

Dairy productivity by remoteness and by farm size 

Figure 1(a) and (b) below display dairy productivity by remoteness and by farm size at the time of survey and ten years earlier, from which a number of interesting insights can be drawn. First, there is substantial variation of dairy productivity by remoteness with yield considerably declining as one moves from the urban centre (Addis Ababa) to more remote areas. For example, at the time of survey, while farms in and around Addis Ababa get about 950 litres per cow per year, those farms located in most remote areas receive as little as 200 litres per cow per year. Farming households reported a similar trend occurred 10 years earlier with the farmers closest to urban areas getting substantially larger yield compared to ones located in more remote areas. Second, dairy productivity significantly improved over time except for the most remote farms. Third, Figure 1(b) displays yield by farm size. Here, farm size is classified into three broad categories: (a) small farms that manage 1-2 cows, (b) medium farms that manage between 2-24 cows, and (c) large farms that manage more than 24 cows. The figure shows that there is a marked productivity difference across farm sizes. Productivity of medium-sized farms is more than double that of smaller farms. Productivity of larger farms is noticeably larger: about ten times that of smaller ones and about four times that of medium-sized farms. While productivity of the medium- and larger-sized farms improved over time, productivity of smaller farms stagnated.   

Figure 1: Differences in dairy productivity by remoteness and by farm size  

Source: Data from IFPRI/ESSP’s dairy value chain survey (2018).

The role of women upstream of the dairy value chain 

In addition to the traditional division of labour in rural parts of many developing countries where women are tasked with most domestic activities including housekeeping, cooking, and family caring, women also play crucial role in agricultural value chains. Table 1 below presents the time dairy farming households spent on dairy production in Ethiopia. The table also shows the role of female labour in dairy-related activities. The table shows that dairy-related activities are largely undertaken by family labour. Women are primarily involved in such activities such as milking cows and cleaning the sheds and utensils and engage in other activities to a smaller extent. Men undertake the other activities including preparing feeds and taking cows out for grazing/watering, which is predominantly handled by male children. Interestingly, in more than 66% of cases, marketing of milk is undertaken by men.  

Table 1: Family labour in dairy-related activities in Ethiopia 

Dairy related activities (person days/year)  Family              Hired               Overall  Of which, Female  Female share (%) 
Milking cow-morning  13  3  17  11  65.5 
Milking cow-evening  13  3  16  11  65.8 
Marketing milk  7  2  9  3  33.1 
Preparing feeds and feeding cows  29  8  37  12  31.4 
Cleaning the sheds and utensils  21  7  28  19  68.4 
Taking cows out for grazing/watering  100  17  117  21  18.1 
Total      224  77  34.2 

Source: Data from IFPRI/ESSP’s dairy value chain survey (2018). 

Consistent to what is shown above where marketing of milk is predominantly handled by men, the role of women considerably diminishes as farm size grows and as farm location becomes nearer to urban areas. In rural areas, female labour accounts for about 36% of overall activity whereas male labour accounts for about 33%, with child labour constituting the rest. However, as farm locations get closer to urban areas (Addis Ababa), the contribution of female labour declines to about 25% with males representing over 60% of labour involvement (Figure 2(a)). In a similar fashion, the contribution of female labour in the dairy production process shrinks from about 40% in smaller farms to about 16% in larger farms. In contrast, the share of male labour involvement considerably increases from about 30% in smaller farms to about 70% in larger farms (Figure 2(b)).   

Figure 2: Contribution of women by farm size and urban proximity 

Source: Date from IFPRI/ESSP’s dairy value chain survey (2018).

Figure 3 below further distinguishes the correlation between farm sizes, farm location, and involvement of women in dairy-related activities. Interestingly, in dairy farms with seemingly larger financial flows (i.e., larger farms and/or ones located in and around urban areas), men are willing to be involved even in tasks that are conventionally perceived to be women’s activities such as milking cows and cleaning sheds and utensils. Evidence indicates that this relates to differences in financial flows across farm sizes and distances.   

Figure 3: The role of women by farm size and urban proximity  

Source: Data from IFPRI/ESSP’s dairy value chain survey (2018).

In line with points described above, revenue from dairy sales for dairy farming households shows major differences across distances and farm sizes (Figure 4). Figure 4(a) displays trends in revenue from dairy sales by travel time from Addis Ababa. The figure shows that dairy farmers located closer to urban areas get more than double the revenue than farmers in more remote areas. Similarly, Figure 4(b) exhibits a positive relationship between revenue from dairy sales and farm size. Larger farms earn about three times as much revenue as smaller farms. These phenomena might explain the relative marginalisation of women in larger farms and farms located near urban areas as well as the increasing dominance of male labour in those farms.  

Figure 4: Revenue gradient from dairy sales across distance and farm size  

Source: Data from IFPRI/ESSP’s dairy value chain survey (2018).


Our analysis uses rich intra-household data on gender roles that enables us to go beyond the more limited research that indicate female-headed farming households in developing countries are less productive on average and possess less marketable surplus than male-headed households. Our analysis shows that as dairy farms gain proximity to urban areas (i.e., better access to input and output markets) and as the scale of production grows (i.e., more financial flows), women’s involvement diminishes as men become more involved, which is consistent with findings in other studies. This may be due to limited access to financial and other opportunities that leave women bound to small-scale production processes that involve little financial flows despite their crucial role in the production process. 

These phenomena may help explain the relative marginalisation of women in larger and urban adjacent farms as well as the increasing dominance of male labour in those farms. Hence, further research is needed to understand the causes of the relative marginalisation of women in the higher-value end of the dairy industry and in value-chains of other high-value crops to improve women’s inclusivity and economic empowerment.  


This article is part of our gender equality series.