Using data obtained from a survey carried out in six villages in various parts of rural Malawi, this paper examines some of the main characteristics of female-headed households. In the study villages, most female-headed households are in a disadvantageous position relative to their male counterparts in terms of labour endowment, farm size, and agricultural productivity. The high cost of inputs, especially of fertilizer, prevents resource-poor female-headed households from improving maize self-sufficiency through increased productivity and from engaging in high-return agriculture such as tobacco production. The paper also shows that there are marked disparities within the category of female-headed households. Factors that enable some female-headed households to achieve high income include the availability of high-return nonfarm income opportunities, use of social networks to obtain labour and income opportunities, land acquisition through flexible applications of inheritance rules, and the existence of informal tobacco marketing. Livelihood diversification is adopted by both male- and female-headed households, but many of the female-headed households engage in low-return and low-entry-barrier activities such as agricultural wage labour. On the other hand, the high off-farm income in the wealthier female-headed households enables them to purchase fertilizer for own-farm production, contributing to an improvement in productivity and resultant increases in their total income
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