Digitalisation of agriculture, a tool for gender equality or an instrument for further discrimination?

Opinion: Gender and digitalisation

 
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Digital technologies are set to revolutionise Africa’s agriculture and value chains. From tools for predictive weather analysis and advisory services, to market linkages, financial access and macro agricultural intelligence, the sector is abuzz with ground-breaking digital innovations that are changing how agricultural information is shared, services accessed and produce marketed. Through digitally-enabled agriculture, smallholder famers have digital identities that include farm data and ecological information which enables them to access tailored agronomic, market and credit services. According to the CTA and Dalberg Advisors’ 2019 Digitalisation of African Agriculture report, up to 390 digital solutions are operational, serving different segments of agricultural value chains.

Of the agricultural workforce in sub-Saharan Africa, 40-50% are women, whose productivity, according to FAO and the World Bank studies, is 20-30% less than those of men. This gap is attributed to gender differentials in access to productive resources and services. Digital solutions have enormous potential to bridge this gender gap. Through faster, timely, and potentially universal reach for all users, digitalisation is poised to be an equaliser, but is this currently the case? Not according to the recent evidence revealed in the CTA/Dalberg Advisors study. This report shows that of the 33 million smallholder users, women constitute a dismal 25%. Digitalisation of agriculture, indeed, risks being an instrument for widening the gender gap in agriculture.

Four imperatives to ensure digitalisation bridges the gender gaps in agriculture:

1) Avoiding the narrow conception of homogeneity of needs in design

Design of digital solutions in agriculture is not necessarily driven by sound understanding of the gendered needs of the agricultural workforce, neither by desire to bridge the current gender gaps. Digital solutions aimed at increasing access to agronomic advice; inputs; and credit addresses proximity challenges – a crucial first step – but fails to influence the gender barriers that underlie effective use of services. Ultimately, it is these gender undertones that determine how women farmers and entrepreneurs consume digital services in agriculture. The design of such solutions therefore needs to be underpinned by an understanding of socio-economic and cultural influences on digital technology use, decision structures that determine farm resources allocation; women learning pathways and the agency to act based on means and preferences. These important prerequisites posed key failures for agri-technology transfer of yester years. Lack of gender disaggregated data, on needs, means and preferences makes this targeting an uphill task. Digital technology providers could, among other measures, partner with socio purpose organisations to reflect gender and other human elements into the design of solutions.

2) Delivery systems that work within women’s time and space

Most digital solutions in agriculture have delivery systems that are phone based and rely on availability of mobile network. Access to agricultural resources and services through mobile phones means that rural women have the convenience to access information and learning resources at their own time, and within their own space. However, according to the GSM Association, which represents the world’s mobile industry, women in low income countries are 10% less likely to own a mobile phone and, on average, 26% are less likely to use mobile internet. By default, the significant number of rural women will miss out on the digital dividends in agriculture. It is therefore essential that, in the interim, delivery systems such as rural radio and women’s peer networks are used as complementary approaches to reaching women farmers and entrepreneurs.

3) Ease of use of digital technologies

Digital technologies are generally intimidating for users of low literacy levels. Two thirds of the world’s illiterate are rural women, and digital literacy amongst women is far lower than for men. When designing digital solutions for agriculture, simplicity and ease of use is key in attracting women farmers and entrepreneurs. Designing and delivering services through local languages can also facilitate access for more female users. Additionally, going beyond SMS to IVR (Interactive Voice Response) to simplify content cultivates interest from female users. Using peer networks, like facilitating young digital entrepreneurs to not only market the solutions but also show scope for usability among women could offer promise for faster on boarding of women users.

4) Cost of digital services

Cost is a key determinant of access to digital services. Experiences from our current projects show that a high percentage of women adopt digital services when services are subsidised, reinforcing the belief that women are more receptive to innovations, but, as the grants end and services become more commercial, the percentage of women users drops. This is a clear indicator that cost becomes a barrier to the continued use of digital services. Women farmers include or exclude themselves from such services based on costs parameters amongst other considerations.

In summary, the path to digitalising Africa’s agriculture must not be obscured by the narrow vision of serving a homogenous farming population. Digitalisation of agriculture should avoid the pitfalls of gender neutral supply-led technology dissemination of yester years.