Nearly US$3 billion has been generated through agribusiness in Africa, touching the lives of over 33 million users of digital solutions in this space. Digitisation in agribusiness has the potential to unlock greater value for sustainable livelihoods on the continent, especially those of women farmers, who often fall behind in traditional cooperative structures. But what do we really know about digital solutions catalysing agribusiness in Africa for women?
Digital platforms rising in prevalence as new economic actors shape agribusiness in Africa. Digital platforms are bridging barriers to financial and economic inclusion in Africa’s economies. Findings from recent research published by insight2impact explored the landscape and growing influence of digital platforms in sub-Saharan Africa, identifying 277 unique digital platforms, which provide income-generating opportunities to more than 4.8 million Africans. Just under 3% of these platforms operate in the agricultural sector, but in the few cases that they do, digital platforms are found to be contributing materially to economic inclusion of women farmers. For example, Trotro Tractor – the ‘Uber’ service for tractors in Ghana – allows women farmers to demand ploughing services more freely with greater access than would typically be observed in traditional cooperative structures, where the needs of male farmers are often prioritised above that of women due to cultural biases. Moreover, digital platforms operational in the agricultural sector in Africa are found to embed and distribute financial services such as credit, savings and insurance to farmers in the network, allowing for better management of the risks associated with their day-to-day activities.
Digitisation of services to farmers resolving Africa’s age-old productivity challenge. The average productivity of farmers in Africa remains well below that of other emerging-market regions, such as Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, according to a report published by the International Food Policy Research Institute. And, digital solutions are found to have a material and positive impact on the challenge of increasing productivity in Africa’s agricultural sector. According to a report published by CTA, 390 active digital solutions were identified to contribute to a 73% increase in farmer productivity and 37% increase in farmer income. For example, DigaFarm in Kenya supports the development of services that help small-scale farmers increase their productivity and income. The platform distinctly targets gender inclusion in agribusiness and has reached more than 1 million farmers, of which 43% are women. Digifarm’s model has successfully digitised the marketplace for farmers to access financial services, farming inputs and other value-added services for women farmers. Farmerline, which uses mobile communication tools to empower small-scale farmers in Ghana with regular and critical information on market prices, weather patterns and farming techniques, support producers in optimising agricultural yields. This mobile application has been rolled out to 200,000 small-scale farmers across West Africa and not only provides information updates to farmers, but also tracks the impact of farmer interventions through surveys. The initiative has been found to have a positive impact on the productivity of women in agribusiness and, by 2020, Farmerline hopes to scale its impact to at least 1 million small-scale farmers with a continued focus on gender inclusion.
Digital financial services have an important role to play in supporting women farmers in better managing risk to their livelihoods. Digital innovation has grown exponentially in recent years and has become fundamental to financial sector development. Many financial service innovations cut across the entire economy, including the agricultural ecosystem. Digitalisation for agriculture (D4Ag) platforms provide case studies to show the value to women farmers through the provision of fit-for-purpose financial services. The digital platform, Mfarm in Kenya, offers credit through its platform. Through the power of platforms in scaling consumer reach and using alternative data, credit is offered to farmers active on the platform in a leaner and more cost-effective way than traditional financial services could provide. In the realm of frontier insur-tech applications, research by Cenfri has shown that smart contracts, which lower the costs of delivering microinsurance through automation of pay-out processes, are finding use cases for farmers in the agricultural sectors of Malaysia, Mexico, and Singapore, and Africa could potentially learn from these applications.
Economic inclusion is a goal that digital solutions can catalyse for women in agribusiness, but we should remain sober about the unique risks that women face in this sector. Women farmers consistently struggle to access land for farming, be well represented in cooperative systems, and secure the financial resources to effectively implement gender inclusion programmes in agribusiness. These challenges, amongst others, have persistently contributed to gender pay gaps in farming. In Ghana for example, female farmers earn 25-30% less than their male counterparts, and in Côte d’Ivoire this is as wide as 70%. Digital solutions, including digital financial services, which are appropriately designed and distributed to meet women’s needs, have a very important role to play in overcoming many of these challenges as early case studies demonstrate. However, our excitement around the facilitation and promotion of innovation in agribusiness needs to be counterbalanced with a sober perspective of what we really know about the risks that women uniquely face in this sector, and the reality that there is no one silver bullet to realising gender equality.