Michael Hailu: “Women’s empowerment is critical”

Following the European Development Days (EDDs), which put a spotlight on women’s empowerment on 5-6 June 2018, Spore spoke with CTA Director, Michael Hailu, to get his take on reducing the gender gap in agriculture, in particular through digitalisation.

Michael Hailu joined high-level discussions on women's empowerment in agriculture at the EDDs © CTA

This year’s EDDs were focused on placing women at the forefront of development. How is this important theme integrated into CTA’s refreshed strategy?

We have always had a gender strategy in CTA, but in our refreshed strategy, women empowerment is even more prominent. We have identified three intervention areas in our refreshed strategy: youth entrepreneurship and employment; digitalisation to enhance productivity and profitability of agricultural value chains; and building climate resilience through climate-smart innovations and policies. Cutting across all these is gender and women’s empowerment so, in everything we do, we really emphasise the gender element – more so than we did in the past. In the digitalisation agenda, for instance, it’s not always easy to get young women involved in ICT innovations and when we run the Pitch AgriHack competitions we often find that women are not that well represented. So we are making a special effort to promote women’s empowerment and engage more women in our initiatives.

You were a panellist for a session on ‘Going digital,’ which acknowledged that women often have lower levels of digital literacy and more limited access to technology than men. What is CTA doing to reduce this gender gap and ensure that women are able to play a key role in agriculture’s digitalisation?

One of the key areas where you can engage a lot of young women is in ICT entrepreneurship, especially in the agricultural and rural development sector. We have very successful women entrepreneurs that we have supported in our programmes to help set up new ICT businesses, e-commerce platforms or financial services through mobile phones, for example. These women are excellent examples to motivate other young women. This year in our Pitch AgriHack programme, we are putting a lot more focus on young women so that we get at least 50% participation.

Can you give an example of one woman who is particularly inspiring and who represents a good role model to other young women?

Many of the young agripreneurs who take part in Pitch AgriHack have become very successful women. Awa Caba from Sooretul, for example, has been supported by several of our initiatives (see Spore article, With Sooretul local products are just a click away). She has set up an e-commerce platform in Senegal that is helping smallholder women producers access lucrative markets, which is a big challenge for rural women. Her platform is helping producers sell processed local foods, not only to clients in Dakar, but also to the diaspora market – which is a large market.

From Botswana, Naledi Mogwe has set up mAgri, another platform that is providing mobile services to smallholder producers and agribusinesses. mAgri provides services such as weather information, agronomic tips, financial services and market prices to smallholder producers. It has over 400,000 users and its goal is to reach the underserved community in Botswana – especially smallholders. mAgri has been successful enough to venture outside of Botswana and is looking at breaking into West African markets, so CTA has been supporting mAgri in building the capacity of its staff and exposing them to opportunities. For example, Naledi was with us at the EDDs and said she found the experience ‘eye opening and insightful’ as she had the opportunity to network and link up with potential investors.

Access to finance is one of the biggest barriers to success for young agripreneurs, particularly women. What are the most promising innovations and programmes that are helping to overcome this challenge?

Women’s access to resources is limited in agriculture and that obviously restricts their ability to produce and engage in agribusiness. One of the main constraints regarding access to finance is their lack of collateral. Many women don’t own their own land, and their property is normally registered in the name of their husband, so they cannot provide collateral to obtain loans. However, there are innovations in ICTs that allow women to build up a personal profile to help them to get loans. FarmDrive, for example, developed by a women-led start-up in Kenya, has developed an alternative credit scoring system for women farmers. With this kind of scoring, they can go to the banks and get credit. CTA has been supporting FarmDrive to further develop their business. So this is one ICT innovation that allows women to become more bankable.

How can the development of big data in terms of farmer profiling and farm data acquisition help organisations provide better services to farmers in ACP regions?

Data for agriculture is a big part of our work. We have been working with farmer’s organisations, supporting projects in Uganda, Southern Africa and other places. We have worked to help farmers’ organisations and cooperatives digitally profile their members so that they can become more business-oriented and better managed. Once they have a good record of their members, they know what they produce and they know what is coming to market. So it’s really improving management of the cooperatives, as well as also building the profile of farmers so that they can use that data to be able to go and apply for credit and access other services.

In Uganda, we have a project with Igara Growers Tea Factory, which is owned by 6,000 farmers. Igara Tea provides inputs to farmers like fertilisers. When the farmers bring their tea to the cooperative, the price for the inputs is deducted from their payment. However, what happened in the past was that the cooperative did not maintain a good record of which farmers owned which land, or what they produced. As a result, some farmers were recording their plots in different names; this was unfortunate and meant that the cooperative was actually losing money and struggled to maintain a viable business. But, with CTA’s support, they have not only been able to digitally profile their farmers, but they now have geo-referenced data on where the farms are, the age of the different tea plantations, how much to expect from each farm etc. Having access to such information has really improved their management and profitability.

Moreover, the farmers were also able to get the advice they needed to improve their production, and the whole management system has improved so much so that Igara Tea has become quite profitable. They have also created a saving and credits organisation to make sure all the financial management is done in a professional way.

There is huge potential for digitalisation to empower farmers, but what are the challenges? And how can women farmers be guaranteed to benefit from digitalisation?

There are many challenges to digitalisation; one is the development of a strong business model for these kinds of innovations. Once an innovation has been introduced, how do you then make it sustainable so that it can pay for itself in the long run? How do you develop support mechanisms, like businesses that can support this kind of innovation? So, to a certain extent, you need institutions like CTA to provide support for these kind of activities but, in the long run, to make them sustainable, we really have to develop viable business models.

In terms of capacity, we have realised that women in particular are not always taking advantage of technical innovations due to a number of factors. Women don’t use ICT innovations as much as men because of cultural and social reasons, or because of a lack of skills and low education levels, as well as ICT policies that don’t have a strong gender element to them. So I think there are a number of challenges that have to be overcome, especially so that women can benefit from these digital innovations.

A key part of CTA's activities, traditionally, has been to share knowledge and experiences. Is it important that CTA plays a supporting role in helping share successful business models and scaling them up?

Absolutely, that’s one of the key contributions CTA makes. We bring people together to share how these business models work and how to turn them into successful enterprises. So, for example, in the next couple of weeks we are going to bring together all of the small entrepreneurs who are operating agricultural drone businesses from across the seven ACP countries we are working with, and the idea is to really explore how they are developing their business models. We are also bringing in a business development expert from Earnest & Young, so we can help the entrepreneurs to refine their business models and learn from each other. So we do lots on that and we really hope we can continue to work in the area of business development because I think it’s a big challenge but offers huge opportunities for entrepreneurship and jobs for young people.

Do you have any key takeaway messages from the EDD event that you would like to share with Spore readers?

The key message is that women’s empowerment is critical and a lot more work still needs to be done to level the playing field so that they can equally participate and have their voices heard. We have to redouble our efforts to focus more on women’s empowerment and ensure that women are benefiting from the interventions we promote and the innovations we support. The EDD has put a spotlight on gender and women’s empowerment and CTA is happy to be part of that, so we hope that we can scale up our work in this area.

Susanna Cartmell-Thorp

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The Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA) is a joint international institution of the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) Group of States and the European Union (EU). CTA operates under the framework of the Cotonou Agreement and is funded by the EU.