Digital interventions must be paired with complementary, non-digital solutions

Opinion: Digital solutions

 
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At the Africa Women Innovation & Entrepreneurship Forum (AWIEF) this week, attendees are discussing a timely issue for agribusiness: digitalisation and its potential impact for women. Digital solutions are increasingly prevalent across industries, and agriculture is no exception. But from my perspective, digital tools alone are insufficient to solve the unique challenges facing smallholder farmers, especially women. Catalysing women’s agribusiness requires prioritising access – both to digital tools and to complementary services across the value chain – to ensure that women actively benefit from the latest innovations.

The importance of agribusiness to sub-Saharan Africa and to the lives of women cannot be understated. More than 60% of the population are smallholder farmers. According to the World Economic Forum, nearly half of the agricultural labour force in the region are women, and women produce 70% of Africa’s food. With agriculture at the core of so many livelihoods, effective solutions in this sector have huge implications for women across the continent.

Digital solutions can provide valuable services to farmers in specific use cases through data-driven insights. For example, Ignitia, a FINCA Ventures portfolio company, provides highly accurate and accessible weather forecasts, helping the 95% of smallholders reliant on rain-fed irrigation to predict tropical weather patterns. Ignitia works with six mobile network operators in West Africa, giving them access to 100 million subscribers and 50% of the mobile lines in three countries. The company’s approach emphasises low-barrier entry: Forecasts are delivered to subscribers via easy-to-read text messages (SMS), meaning no smartphones are needed and those with limited literacy can interpret the information.

Mobile money and digitally-enabled financing options can also help smallholder farmers. A 2016 study found that mobile money services in Kenya reduced poverty, especially for female-headed households, while creating greater occupational choice for women. Additionally, initiatives like FarmDrive offer democratised access to loans and financial services to farmers – ensuring smallholders can apply for a loan and get real-time credit scoring, portfolio management and advanced data analytics from any phone. For women farmers in Africa – many of whom don’t quality for traditional bank financing – FarmDrive’s alternative credit-scoring model can be a game-changer.

But are digital tools alone sufficient for catalysing women’s agribusiness at scale? Not if they don’t account for the extensive real-world obstacles women farmers face. Chief among these is uneven literacy – both financial and digital – between genders. According to the International Telecommunication Union, Africa is the only continent whose digital gender gap has widened since 2013. As Scott Graham, FINCA International’s director of customer research and field data services, noted, “Women, who are already struggling with a deficit in financial literacy, now need to gain digital literacy in order to keep up with men.”

Women are also stymied by local land rights. While women work disproportionately in agribusiness, women-owned agribusiness is rare: Fewer than 15% of agricultural landholders globally are women. In sub-Saharan Africa, women are significantly less likely than men to own land. Because women farmers are seldom land title owners, they lack the collateral that would unlock access to bank lending and financing.

To genuinely assist women farmers, digital interventions must be paired with complementary, non-digital solutions. Numerous social enterprises are doing this. For example, Meridia works in Ghana and Malawi to ensure equitable land ownership by pairing geo-mapping technology with legal document validation. In Zambia, Good Nature Agro, a FINCA Ventures investee, provides vital extension services – from access to high-quality legume seed inputs, to specialised agronomic training, to guaranteed markets post-harvest – that are tripling smallholder net incomes, while collecting farmer-level statistics using the digital agri-data management tool, Smallholdr. And, as KadAfrica shows in Uganda, pure female-focused agri-ventures play a crucial role in facilitating access to land and farming resources for women and girls, connecting them to mass-market distribution.

As these pioneering companies demonstrate, to spur women’s agribusiness, we must expand the definition of ‘access’. It’s not enough to provide a solution without addressing the unique hurdles that women face in product or service uptake and usage, challenges across the value chain, or systemic barriers in society at large. To set a truly catalytic impact for women’s agribusiness in motion, social entrepreneurs must be mindful of digital’s specific use cases, benefits and limitations.