Getting a handle on it

The handle or shaft length on a hoe is crucial for efficiency and comfort. Short handles may feel more familiar but they mean more bending over, and more strain on the back. Greg Baka of  Easy Digging is a strong advocate of the long handle and all his hoe handles are shipped 59″ long as he believes the correct ergonomic length should be between armpit and shoulder. It was on his site that I found the link to the report below, on the hoe in Africa.

Others – like  Simon Drummond of Get Digging who imports azadas himself and Kate McEvoy of Realseeds think shorter is better – 36″ to 47″. They are however united in their enthusiasm for the hoe. I discovered the advantages of the long handle, on spades and forks, in Ireland – but the grub hoe/azada/essade was largely unknown there. Here in le Languedoc the Robinia tree grows like weeds and provides me with strong slim and unrottable shafts from its straightish branches.

Andy Graham of  HoboTraveller filmed two girls in Kpalime, Togo, West Africa using the short hoe  here [also in Video Library, right]

The hand hoe is probably the most important tool for women farmers in Africa, but also one that causes them considerable problems.

IFAD [International Fund for Agricultural Development], FAO [Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations] and the Government of Japan conducted a study of the agricultural implements used by women farmers in Africa. It found that, for a number of both cultural and economic reasons, most men and women farmers used primarily hand tools. The hand hoe is the tool most used in Burkina Faso, Senegal, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Both men and women use it. In some areas, such as in the Central Plateau of Burkina Faso and parts of Uganda, it is virtually the only tool used by poorer women farmers.

But its traditional design creates problems for users. The study found some variations in the design and manufacture of hoes. Except in Senegal, the hoe is invariably of the traditional ‘chop-down-and-pull’ type, and with a short handle. The way the hoe’s blade fits to the handle varies from country to country. There hoes with a tang fitting, socket fitting or eye-ring fitting. The hoe with the eye-ring fitting is usually the industrially manufactured version, whereas those with the other two types of fittings are made by local blacksmiths. These are cheaper but more likely to need to be replaced annually because of their poor quality. Even these cost about USD 1.75, which is expensive for the poorer farmers, such as those in central Burkina Faso. Hoes with socket fittings are generally sold without handles, which the farmer or a specialized craftsman in the village can make from local wood.

The women in the study focus groups noted that of all their tasks on the land, weeding with a hand-hoe was the hardest and most time consuming job, causing both fatigue and backache. A major reason for this are traditional hoes’ short handles, which necessitates women’s bending over almost double to use them. Only in Senegal, where inter-row cultivation with animal traction is usually practised and long-handled push-pull hoes are in use, was weeding seen as less difficult. The short-handled hoe is effective and provides considerable control, but with some tasks and easier soil situations, a lighter, long-handled hoe would work perfectly well and be far easier for women to use. The hand hoe is therefore a tool that has room for improvement.  Given the obvious drawbacks for women users of the traditional model hoe – problematic handle length and weight – it is surprising that the hoe’s design has proven so resistant to change.

Different ethnic groups seem to be fiercely attached to the handle lengths to which they are accustomed. For instance, in the study area in Zambia, migration brought together ethnic groups from different parts of the country and with differing hoe handle lengths. While these groups have lived and worked together for many years in harmony, each group has retained its own accustomed hoe handle length. Attempts to introduce long-handled hoes, such as those by a German-financed project in Zimbabwe, have apparently been unsuccessful (at the time of the research). Lighter Chinese hoes have been imported into the countries of eastern and southern Africa, but farmers there seem to be unaware of these lighter hoes and buy whatever hoes are sold locally.

Choices in local markets are limited. The push-pull hoe in Senegal (similar to the Dutch hoe used in Europe) is an exception to the rule. It has a long handle and a farmer can use it while in an upright position. This hoe was introduced in Senegal in the mid-thirties. In central Senegal, it has now displaced the traditional hoe for weeding purposes. The study notes that as members of the French army the Senegalese were great travelers, and are therefore probably more open to the world and more innovative. Also, the light soils in Senegal make the push-pull hoe easier to use than in some neighbouring countries. What are the factors that have made the hand hoe so resistant to design change and innovation?

* There is a widespread belief (except in Senegal) that weeding is performed properly only when the worker is bent double and armed with a short-handled hoe. People who use hoes with long handles (the Langi tribe in Uganda and the Fulani in Burkina Faso, who are mainly nomadic herders; prisoners; or workers on commercial farms) are considered to be lazy and incompetent. In fact, the study found that length of the handle is very linked to culture, tradition and ethnic identity.

* Manufacturers of tools were found to undertake no market research, and are seemingly unaware of the changes that have taken place in African farming (e.g., women are now doing by far the most work on the land).

* Men are usually the ones who buy the tools, including hoes, even though their wives are more likely to be the tools’ users. The study found that even if they acknowledge that the women need lighter or differently designed hoes, the men still choose the traditional ‘male’ model of hoe when making the actual purchase.

* Women and men are often unaware of some of the hoe alternatives on the market or those alternatives are not available in many local markets. When women are shown the lighter models, they are usually interested in owning them. The study found that women farmers repeatedly complained about the hoe and said that they wanted a lighter one for weeding.

But handle length is another issue: Women seem to feel that a longer handle is inappropriate for them, even though it would be more comfortable for them to use. They are anxious to have improvements made in their hoes, but primarily in quality and durability, rather than in the hoe’s design. Some women (for instance, in Burkina Faso) did say that they would like longer handles for their hoes, but their husbands would not allow them.

Adapted from: IFAD/FAO/Government of Japan. 1998. Agricultural Implements Used by Women Farmers in Africa. Rome.

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