Gender Relations in South Eastern Nigeria production

Economies and agrarian systems evolve due to a myriad of factors. Gender relations are often a product of economic systems and a contributing factor themselves. This essay will outline Susan Martin’s argument of how gender relations affected production in South Eastern Nigeria. This will be done by examining the methods of production in regards to gender relations and how this contributed to a lack of willingness to innovate. Ultimately, this essay will find that innovation was too costly compared to female labour, which was much cheaper and flexible by comparison to capital investment.

Production of palm oil and other crops for export and consumption were primarily undertaken by women.[1] Labour scarcity in the region led to a shift in labour practices, creating a division of labour between men and women.[2] There was a distinction between ‘male’ and ‘female crops’, with the former primarily being cash crops that required initiation by men and the latter primarily being food crops.[3] Even with this distinction, however, women had to work both crops. Men were required more for the initiating of production or undertaking typically dangerous and heavy work in a short period of time.[4] The rest of production would be dominated by the women. As export demand incentivised increased production of palm oil and other cash crops for sale, men entered into production, but this rather stripped women of their control over the process and the use of the product afterwards.[5]

Production itself was dominated by single-households.[6] The male head would receive all the income and would spend it as he pleased.[7] This will be expanded on in the next section, as this will be seen as one reason for why very little investment was put into labour-saving techniques.

Innovation requires willingness and a capacity to change. Many Ngwa households had neither. Palm oil production remained labour intensive with very little attempts to innovate.[8] The reasons for a lack of investment into innovation is due to a lack of capital, the difficulty of inheritance, the superiority of manual labour and the political powerlessness of women. Crop diversification was a preferred method because it was viable. With the preferred investment of extra land, it could be worked by a flexible workforce and it ensured food security.

Many households couldn’t invest in labour saving techniques simply because they could not afford them.[9] Rather, money was used for purchasing land, marriage and equipment to be used in manual labour.[10] Another reason was that physical assets were very hard to pass down to multiple heirs.[11] Land could be parcelled up and small tools could be divided, but large machinery was hard to give to multiple people and there was little capacity to produce more. So, rather than invest in labour-saving techniques, patriarchs preferred to invest in more labour through marriage.[12] This investment in manual labour meshed well with the preferred investment of crop diversification, as a human can more easily shift to different practices than a machine.

Lastly, women lacked political power in the society. They were outsiders to the local community due to the custom of moving to the husband’s community, and had very little say in the family unit and the community itself.[13] As the ones bearing the brunt of the labour, they had the most incentive to want innovation, but no capacity to demand it or work towards it. The male heads monopolised the income and were not interested in labour-saving due to the aforementioned reasons. For this reason, women were left to bear the burden of an increased workload.

Martin’s argument shows that agricultural practices evolve from necessity and opportunity. The need for food security stimulated the diversification of crops, while a labour shortage resulted in a system of labour division that put a heavy work burden on females.[14] It also shows a need for innovation may not be fulfilled due to unequal power relations between those bearing the brunt of the work and those with the capital. Export demands stimulated increased production and a shift in the methods of production, changing not only the crops being grown and focused on, but also how the producers dealt with production and structured their familial units as the production mechanism.

This essay has shown how gender relations affected and were affected by agrarian change in South Eastern Nigeria. It has shown how palm oil production, one of the main cash crops, was stimulated by export demand and how females bore the brunt of the workload to fulfil the demand. Labour-saving techniques were shown to not be adopted due to a lack of capital and an unwillingness by the male heads of households due to the flexibility of manual labour. This was all shown to be significant as it indicates how necessity and opportunity stimulate innovation and change but only if the stakeholders are willing to adapt.


Martin, Susan. “Gender and Innovation: Farming, Cooking and Palm Processing in the Ngwa Region, South-Eastern Nigeria, 1900-1930.” The Journal of African History 25, no. 4 (1984): 411-427.


[1] Susan Martin, “Gender and Innovation: Farming, Cooking and Palm Processing in the Ngwa Region, South-Eastern Nigeria, 1900-1930,” The Journal of African History 25, no. 4 (1984): 413.

[2] Ibid., 413.

[3] Ibid., 416.

[4] Ibid., 417.

[5] Ibid., 419.

[6] Ibid., 417.

[7] Ibid., 417.

[8] Ibid., 424.

[9] Ibid., 425.

[10] Ibid., 425.

[11] Ibid., 426.

[12] Ibid., 426.

[13] Ibid., 418.

[14] Ibid., 413.