The need to bridge the gender gap in agriculture is clear. Despite making up at least 40-50% of the farmer population in sub-Saharan Africa, women face disadvantages in accessing every enabler that helps drive equitable participation and value capture in agricultural markets. These include access to productivity drivers like inputs and assets; drivers of strong market linkages such as market intelligence; mobility and buyer linkages ; and a supportive enabling environment for women, including access to basic infrastructure and a supportive enabling environment (e.g. land rights). The result of such unequal access is stark: women in agriculture are under-represented in skilled, high-wage jobs and female-headed households experience both lower productivity and lower income than male-headed households.
In theory, digital for agriculture (D4Ag) solutions could—by offering better information and skills to women, connecting them with buyers, and informing and supporting the enforcement of policy—make a meaningful impact in access to these enablers and ultimately, outcomes for female farmers. Yet, as highlighted in the blog by Sabdiyo Dido of CTA , we are a long way away from realising that potential.
Our recent study with CTA on the digitalisation of African agriculture showed that only 25% of users of D4Ag solutions are women. That’s alarming, especially when taking into account that this metric doesn’t consider the quality of use (frequency of use or impact on women). Most of the discourse today focuses on two related explanations: (i) women don’t have sufficient access to digital devices and tools, and, (ii) even if they do, they also face greater digital and general literacy challenges than men, making it challenging for them to take advantage of digital solutions. While both of those points are true and important, I think our sector is overlooking what is arguably an equally important challenge: explicit intent to serve women.
The reality is that the D4Ag worlds and gender worlds don’t have sufficient overlap:
• D4Ag enterprises are primarily focused on building a business model that works (which, as we discuss in our report, is already quite challenging), and these enterprises feel that focusing on women (who, as stated earlier, face more challenges than men) would make their work even harder. In fact, over the course of our interviews, many organisations made statements such as, “We only track gender when donors ask us to. If it were up to us, we wouldn’t focus on it at all. Not that we don’t care about women, it’s just that we need to prioritise economics first.” In the course of our research of nearly 400 enterprises, we were hard pressed to find organisations that specifically focused on reaching women (there were, of course, a few exceptions). We can talk about better product design for women all we want, but until commercial enterprises actually choose to serve women and see them as an important long-term customer base, meaningful change in terms of access is unlikely.
• Investors aren’t pushing enterprises to make this shift, but few donors have made mainstreaming gender into digital solutions for agriculture a priority. In most cases, donors still separate agriculture portfolios from gender portfolios (where they even exist!). Even when gender experts work with agriculture experts, competing interests (e.g. proof of concept or driving income gains vs. a gender equal user base) can make it tricky for them to align on metrics for success. This is a missed opportunity: without donor focus and prioritisation, we are unlikely to see commercial enterprises make the shift themselves.
Overcoming the intent gap is a precursor to helping women use digitalisation to support their activities in agriculture. This is a challenge that we can overcome and donors, in particular, have an important role to play in leading the way. They can serve women like they do smallholder farmers, which is an important criteria for funding. Similarly, they can help reduce the cost of doing business for enterprises by increasing the time horizon for investments in organisations that prioritise women, developing gender disaggregated data, funding specific studies on how women would want to use digital solutions for agriculture, supporting the use of extension agents alongside digital solutions, and helping connect D4Ag enterprises with local partners specifically focused on gender. That D4Ag is still in its early days bodes well; we have a significant opportunity to change the course before the divide becomes even larger, and harder to alter.
Bridging the divide means that donors will need to work differently internally (e.g. pairing gender experts with or even embedding them within agriculture teams giving grants) and even prioritise different metrics and criteria for success. Working differently, of course, is a matter of will, choice and human relationships. Sometimes, that can be harder than finding the next trendy company to back. But don’t we owe it to our women farmers to do so?