Digitalisation: providing the transformation needed for women in agriculture?

Opinion: Gender and digitalisation


If women farmers had the same access to knowledge, technology, land and markets as men, they would achieve the same level of productivity while also increasing their income. By raising the yields farmed by women up to the levels achieved by men, the number of undernourished people could be reduced by almost 100 million to 150 million, according to FAO. Women constitute, respectively, 40% and 37% of the labour force in agriculture in ACP and Southeast and South Asian countries, so the potential for progression is clear. Of course, digitalisation can be a key enabler for gender inclusion, but first the necessary infrastructure must be established.

Rapid digitalisation is enabling swift transformation in several aspects of agricultural value chains. These include planning, inputs access, production, logistics, and market access (e.g. e-commerce), supply chain management and access to finance (e.g. mobile payment and insurance). The role that digitalisation could play in helping women farmers to access markets and knowledge is widely recognised. However, rural digital dissemination continues to present considerable issues and the problem is even more acute for women, who face a triple challenge: digital, rural, and gender.

Increased access to ICTs is included in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the United Nations, as well as in many country development plans. However, it is worthwhile to note that women in low- and middle-income countries are 10% less likely than men to own a mobile phone, and 23% less likely than men to use mobile internet. This translates into 313 million fewer women than men using mobile internet in 2018, according to the Global System for Mobile Communication Association. Strong action is required if the gender gap in agriculture is to be bridged and SDG goals delivered. The implication is that, without action, the gender gap in agriculture may persist or even widen. The digital revolution has already transformed numerous business sectors, but digital innovations in agriculture need to move beyond large-scale farming operations to benefit more farmers, including more women.

Addressing the gender gap through digitalisation

Many practitioners regard the vast group of people requiring better access to ICT as a huge challenge; others talk about the gender gap and point to the ongoing digital transformation in rural areas as an opportunity to change the status of women and improve female empowerment. Indeed, ICTs offer valuable opportunities for agricultural and rural development, increasing sustainable output, farm and agribusiness efficiency and revenues for a wide range of stakeholders.

While the pace of change is accelerating and innovations are constantly emerging, there is still much to be done to address the gender gap. Public and private organisations, NGOs, social enterprises and entrepreneurs should all be engaged in unlocking women’s access to use and control of ICTs. Yet, many factors limit access to ICT for women in rural communities.. One such example is related to cultural and social attitudes, which restrict women’s access to mobile internet. Other aspects are linked to mobility constraints, heavy workloads, inadequate financial resources, and low levels of literacy and education. Addressing these would help to reduce the gender gap.

Actions for innovation and the next generation

Overall, rural digitalisation should be considered as the key enabler in the transformation of agriculture value chains in low- and middle-income countries. At the Syngenta Foundation, we have been involved in several initiatives fostering the use of digital technology to educate, train and support farmers and rural entrepreneurs. In India, for example, in partnership with JEEVIKA, a World Bank programme that helped lower costs and boost agricultural production in rural Bihar, women farmers received regular periodic updates on their mobile phones to learn best practices in maize cultivation, as well as weather information to inform farming decisions.

Rural young women, in particular, can be important actors in boosting rural transformation, and digitalisation can enable this in a powerful manner. Areas that have the potential to empower rural women include entrepreneurship in attractive high-value markets like horticulture and the provision of diverse services to farmers through ICT tools such as planning, agronomic advice and access to finance, as well as downstream agro-processing, logistics and commercialisation.

While the demand for food is growing globally, young people, particularly youth entrepreneurs, are embracing digital technologies more actively than older generations. Youth, the modernisation of agriculture, and the expansion of ICTs are likely to be interlinked, and the private sector and civil society will play an important role in any sustainable ICT strategy, and contribute to bridging the triple challenge women face. A regulatory environment - with standards, access, security, and data ownership - needs to be in place to foster agricultural innovation and to maximise the benefits of ICT for both men and women.