Digital technologies are revolutionising agricultural value chains, providing improved access to inputs, finance, markets and weather information. With the right policies and programmes in place, agricultural digitalisation has the potential to facilitate women’s economic empowerment.
In Africa, women comprise close to 50% of the agricultural labour force and this figure is set to rise as men seek more industrial employment in urban areas, leaving female farmers with a myriad of hurdles to overcome. “In most instances these women lack operational capital, have limited access to credit and insurance, and land ownership remains low,” explains Isabel Papadakis, head of IVE (Industries Value Engineering) at SAP Africa. “Most of these women have no benefit of formal schooling or agribusiness training. With no knowledge of how to improve yields or increase the quality of the end-product, they mainly depend on manual labour and intermediaries.”
Women are often the primary care-givers and sole income earners in their families, and struggle to build a thriving agriculture business. While a new generation of tech-savvy female farmers are finding innovative ways to break into the industry, many more are being left behind. "Providing women equal access to services and assets and enhancing their agency and opportunities in the agricultural sector, could increase agricultural production in developing countries by about 2.5-4%, and potentially reduce the number of hungry people by 12-17%,” elaborates Patricia Van De Velde, gender focal point for the Food and Agriculture Global Practice at the World Bank.
The ag-tech revolution
There’s no question that technology is revolutionising farming. Agriculture is now an infinitely smarter ecosystem where sensors, robotics, 3D printing, cloud-based computing and artificial intelligence are becoming normalised. Drones and connected machines are becoming more affordable, giving rise to smart devices for farming suppliers and service providers, allowing the exchange of huge amounts of data. Farming is also becoming more precise. And, while there are some aspects that digitalisation cannot change – bad weather conditions, crop and animal diseases, and commodity market fluctuations – big data and predictive analytics enable real-time simulations, which can inform risk mitigation strategies to manage these conditions.
But technological development does not exist in isolation. And, within rural communities, digitalisation is not necessarily advancing agribusiness at the pace it should. If anything, it is still in its infancy. Emerging nations often have the minimum scientific capacity to implement digital solutions that could solve everyday agribusiness problems.
“It would be a half-baked truth to say that technology has been rolled out fully across Africa, specifically in the agriculture sector. A lot of the technology is still not understood and has hit some cultural barriers with women,” explains Fatima Alimohamed, CEO of African Brand Warrior, a Kenyan-based marketing company well known for their rebranding work across Africa. “That said, wherever technology has been introduced or involved there has been significant improvements, with women not only having access to information at their fingertips, but also enabling them to be a part of the [agricultural] value chain, right down to payments linked to farm produce,” she says.
Back to butter
Technology has the transformative power to change lives. Through digitalisation, women have shown that when they have access to technology they become not only users, but advocators and promoters of other women (see Spore’s field report: Lawyers go digital to reach women farmers). There are many success stories where technology has been introduced in agribusiness, which show that women’s lives are improved and their roles in agribusiness become more sustainable through the use of technology. No one can tell you this more than the shea nut farmers in Northern Ghana.
Shea butter is a highly sought-after product in Ghana. Many women are dependent on the picking and processing of shea nuts to make a living. It is a manual, labour-intensive process. The nuts are gathered on a weekly basis before they begin to ferment, then par-boiled, dried and cracked. Shells are meticulously removed by hand, the kernels sorted, cooked and then finally ground up, either by hand or at a mill. Only when the ground kernels are mixed with water and boiled again, does the final product – the butter – come to life.
But the shea nut value chain is broken: the Ghanaian women who are engaged in informal shea processing often receive the lowest return in the value chain thanks to multiple intermediaries who significantly increase final costs. But, by using technology, their lives have been transformed. This was evidenced in a proof-of-concept initiative between SAP and a Ghanaian-based NGO, with the aim to review the shea nut value chain. “Digital technology has helped to break down barriers in agriculture by providing access to market prices, which reduced dependency on middle-men. The women’s profits increased by 82% due to access to a new international buyers’ market, and they are now able to secure buyers in advance,” explains Papadakis
Women shea nut farmers are now connected to the formal economy through the Shea Network Ghana (SNG), which provides access to instant market prices and allows women to sell their products using their mobile devices. The network also provides consumers with information about where the products have come from. “[SNG] are streamlining the food supply chain and sharing information that end-consumers are concerned with, such as the origin of the food and the production process involved,” says Papadakis.
Megan Angus, owner of Woodview Wagyu, sells certified Angus and Wagyu beef throughout South Africa, as well as to international markets. She too is seeing how transparency and provenance are becoming imperative and, as a result, has placed QR codes on all retail packaging. “Specifically in the cattle and beef industry, digitalisation has enabled full traceability. Customers now have the power to gain more information about the beef by the click of a button,” says Angus. Women livestock farmers in Ghana are also benefitting from digitalisation with CowTribe’s vaccine delivery app (see Spore’s field report: Livestock Vaccines: Digital delivery service)
Mind the gap
Agriculture’s digitalisation has allowed many female ‘agripreneurs’ throughout Africa to leverage technology-based solutions, yet infrastructure and the accessibility of technology remain the biggest challenges and continue to widen the gender gap. The first step in removing barriers to gender equality in agriculture is education. According to a global study to highlight the importance of women in agriculture and to gain insight into where female farmers sit with within the agricultural value chain, those surveyed said that they need more training. Corteva Agriscience found that training is essential to taking advantage of agricultural technology. Internet of Things devices, access to market information, and digital payment and billing services, are all key aspects of ag-tech that will differentiate and digitise the smallholder farmer’s experience.
“More than 500 million smallholder farmers provide over 70% of the world’s food, yet they are often unconnected to the internet and have limited ways to find new sources of timely information,” explains Claire Benard, a Wefarm data scientist. Wefarm’s technology enables farmers to text each other farming questions for free. The technology behind Wefarm’s platform works on the most basic mobile phone and in English, as well as local African languages (Luganda, Runyakitara and Swahili), providing access to agricultural advice for smallholder farmers who need their services the most. “Wefarm’s service is fundamentally inclusive. Anyone can join and learn from the other 1.3 million users on the network. We also use human-centred design principles to improve our product and ensure women are well represented in our user personas,” adds Benard.
Wefarm operates in Kenya and Uganda where, as elsewhere in Africa, women are a crucial part of the agricultural workforce. Many women here are shouldering responsibilities both at home and in the field that enable the operation of small farms. “Our hope is that Wefarm becomes a trusted tool for women, to make their lives easier, and to open possibilities that would not have existed otherwise,” adds Benard. “The solution for empowering women entrepreneurs is a culture shift, most likely driven by education.”
Lowering the barriers to entry
The barriers that women in agribusiness face can be significantly reduced by technology, especially if deployed in a sustainable manner and in collaboration with like-minded stakeholders. As with Wefarm, digitalisation helps to connect women with advisory services, potentially removing middle-men or reducing labour burdens, providing market or legal information, and enabling financial transactions. However, without the right policy frameworks, technological investments in agriculture can not only bypass women, they may also further marginalise them.
“We need to make sure we build ecosystems that take into account the specific constraints that women farmers face,” says Van De Velde. “Interventions should always look for the reasons or causes behind women’s impediments in the agriculture sector.” Like Van De Velde, Papadakis believes that tech companies need to enable women farmers to access training on new technologies and best practices. At the same time, policymakers could introduce measures to support women with all the additional domestic responsibilities that make it difficult for them to focus on sustainable, efficient, and profitable farming businesses. Equal Measures 2030, for example, is an international network which works closely with UN Women and other UN agencies, using data to change gender policies. They provide the data and evidence needed to advocate for gender equality across every sector. With partners in both Senegal (FAWE) and Kenya (Groots), they believe that even though the gender policy landscape is complex, available and accessible information will ‘move the needle’ for women.
According to Papadakis, tech companies are also better-positioned to collaborate with funding agencies to introduce programmes that are dedicated to women, leveraging technology to increase farming productivity. “The end goal is about aligning policy and leveraging technology to create business networks that meet society needs, instead of creating divides between genders and/or cultures. This will assist in introducing efficiencies and improvements that could transform subsistence farms into sustainable businesses,” explains Papadakis.
There is clearly a need to create an extensive digital database for women-owned agribusiness in Africa. And this is where CTA's VALUE4HER programme steps in – bringing together like-minded women agripreneurs throughout Africa. VALUE4HER has built a digital platform to create region-centric hubs. This will provide a more enabling environment for women farmers to fully, and more capably, participate in agricultural markets. From business-to-business matchmaking to a competitive innovation fund, VALUE4HER’s two-year programme will also provide training around market dynamics to elevate key business skills.
“I want to be one of the first women entrepreneurs to turn around agriculture to value for money within my community, country and beyond,” explains Fannie Gondwe, the executive director of Perisha Agro and Packaging Enterprise in Malawi, and part of the VALUE4HER network. In partnership with Africa Women Innovation and Entrepreneurship Forum (AWIEF) and African Women Agribusiness Network, VALUE4HER brings women entrepreneurs in agriculture together to tap into the opportunities of sharing experiences in leadership, networking, production, processing, marketing, and business development. “We are helping these women access higher value markets, acquire the knowledge, skills and confidence to operate effectively in such markets, and access the capital that they need to grow their business,” explains Sabdiyo Dido Bashuna, CTA’s senior technical advisor for value chains and agribusiness.
When women are empowered through programmes like VALUE4HER, it gives them long-term value in terms of skills and networking. “It will not take long for women entrepreneurs in Africa to embrace agriculture transformation in the age of technology, so long as there's political will in our governments, deliberate policies targeting women to advance in technology, inclusiveness, commitment from women themselves and intensifying programmes like VALUE4HER,” says Gondwe.
Women like Gondwe are the future and digitalisation, through programmes like VALUE4HER, will help them to break down agriculture’s gender barriers. It is something the World Bank calls breaking the ‘grass ceiling’. After all, it is not only in Africa where women are the backbone of agricultural development. What VALUE4HER has established is a sustainable and beneficial network that will help to transform small farms and agribusinesses into commercially-viable entities (see Spore’s interview with Irene Ochem, CEO of AWIEF).