While most of us would agree about the disruptive potential of digital technology, we haven’t yet seen a radical shift in productivity caused by digitisation in agriculture. One of the reasons why agriculture is likely to be the last sector to be reshaped by digital technology is the traditional nature of this very old industry – dating back as far as 11,000 years. Another reason for this technological lag comes from the fact that 80% of the food consumed today is produced by smallholders, so if we have to increase the efficiency of the agricultural sector to meet the growing global food demand, the target for digitisation is the smallholder farmers and the way they run the farms.
Fortunately, the unique subscriber penetration rates in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) are already reaching 50% (among the total population) and, by 2025, 66% of all connections will be done via smartphones. Availability of basic technology and infrastructure gives us hope that the digital tools will make a big difference to how farmers run their business.
In fact, digital applications are already transforming the way farmers access services, markets and assets. Mobile value added services offer information support to smallholders, including climate resilience services as well as extension advice. Mobile financial services are used for payments to farmers which promote the use of derivative services, like savings and credit. For instance, in our recent project with MTN Ghana, women started saving on mobile money wallets when payments for their produce were done through mobile money.
Digital tools are also changing the way farmers access markets, as agricultural buyers use traceability solutions and a new wave of agri e-commerce players offers farmers an alternative route to market. Farmers are also now able to access equipment on a pay-as-you-go basis rather than having to pay for the assets upfront, which is impossible for most smallholders considering the low levels of financial inclusion.
This array of digital tools in emerging markets is starting to attract commercial and impact investors, with a volume of commercial capital into agri-tech solutions in SSA having reached €47 million in 2018.
However, with all this promise and positive trends, do women farmers make the use of digital services? As women represent 50% of the labour force in agriculture, achieving efficiency in agricultural sector and food security would require equally empowering women and men in farming. On the one hand, as some GSMA projects in mobile agriculture have demonstrated, women farmers are actively adopting digital agriculture solutions and becoming power users. At the same time, there remains a wide gender gap in access to mobile services that prevents women farmers from benefiting from digital innovation at scale.
The gender gap means that women in SSA are 15% less likely to own a mobile phone, and this gap is further increasing when we look at the use of more complex services. For example, women are 41% less likely than men to use mobile internet. Why does such gender gap continue to exist? The most cited reason for not being able to access mobile technology is literacy and skills, the second barrier identified is affordability, with both of those reasons being underpinned by social norms. As long as girls remain at the bottom of the list of children in the family to receive education, and as long as women are second in the household to purchase a mobile phone, we will continue to witness a gender gap in the access to mobile enabled innovation.
The most important actions we can take as a community of practitioners to close the gender gap are: 1) to understand women’s needs and barriers; and 2) to design with women and for women, by including them in every step of the product lifecycle. When women users are included in the product development process, the service providers become aware of the need to: employ women agents for the distribution of the services and products; represent women in the marketing materials; and, use voice interfaces to increase accessibility for illiterate users.
Women equitability requires conscious and continuous effort from all players in the value chain – impact and commercial investors, start-ups and established companies as well as implementing organisations. All of us have to take responsibility for the equitable social outcomes, starting from how we design our own processes and teams, and to lead by example.