FARMING EQUALITY OP-ED
Digital skills will give Africa’s women a growing chance of competing in agriculture
Women produce 70% of the food on the African continent, but they face significant barriers to succeeding in the agribusiness arena. Addressing their access to technology and upskilling them in ‘digital agriculture’ tools will help increase their yields, income and resilience against shocks.
Every year, the UN’s Micro-, Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (MSMEs) Day is celebrated on 27 June, recognising the important contribution small businesses make to economies around the world. It is also an opportunity to shine a light on the challenges of female agripreneurs in Africa and how digital technologies can help them to establish successful businesses.
Agriculture and agribusiness play a key role in Africa as the main source of income and employment for rural people and the poor. In line with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, women account for 40 to 50% of Africa’s total agricultural workforce and are responsible for producing 70% of the food on the continent.
However, evidence shows significant gender gaps in agricultural productivity, performance and profitability in sub-Saharan Africa, where women are about 20% to 30% less productive than their male counterparts.
These gaps are attributable to several financial and economic challenges and constraints, including unequal access to productive resources such as land, capital, networks and credit relative to men.
Women also face knowledge and information constraints that prevent them from improving their product quality, sales and delivery. It is, therefore, critical to provide more opportunities to women in agriculture and agribusiness through strategic, tailor-made pro-women interventions.
Digital solutions in agriculture, or digital agriculture, can bridge these gaps by providing opportunities for women that give them the benefits of agriculture and value addition.
Experts point out that digital technologies can help to improve women’s access to information, boost their business productivity as well as facilitate outsourcing, resource sharing and networking opportunities.
By using innovative digital strategies, such as social media platforms, women in agriculture and agribusiness can reach new customers and grow their businesses. Even farmers in the most remote locations without internet access can access targeted agricultural information through a simple text or a voice message.
Digital connectivity can also improve women’s access to important agricultural information (such as market information and weather forecasts) that can help to increase their yields, income and resilience against shocks.
It can also provide women-owned MSMEs in agriculture access to trading opportunities provided by trading platforms, such as the recently implemented African Continental Free Trade Area. Digital technologies enable these businesses to improve their product traceability with critical information on logistics and transportation.
Yet women-owned agricultural enterprises in Africa — particularly those from rural areas and less privileged backgrounds — often lack access to the training or digital skills needed to take advantage of technology and the benefits it can offer.
Improving women’s capacity in digital literacy can expose them to timely and relevant agricultural information. The Vodacom Foundation’s Women Farmers Programme, for example, provides capacity-building initiatives in digital literacy to assist female farmers in South Africa.
So far, more than 1,300 female farmers have been trained to develop their digital skills since its pilot in 2018 in rural areas in Limpopo and KwaZulu-Natal.
Female farmers who are digitally connected can access real-time information on what their counterparts are producing across regions in Africa, as well as gaining access to new markets and digital financial services.
With new digital skills, female farmers can transform their businesses through technology as well as help increase productivity and reduce poverty in Africa.
The Momentum Metropolitan Foundation (MMF) and Agri Enterprises’ Women in Farming programme is a three-year incubator aimed at empowering female entrepreneurs in agriculture through enhanced skills, to create jobs and generate income for their families.
The programme will enrol 60 female entrepreneurs in KwaZulu-Natal first. After presenting their agricultural business ideas, they will receive training and mentorship on how to transform their businesses.
Improving market access
Further afield, the Women of Uganda Network offers training to more than 100 women in agriculture on business profiling, mapping of gardens and effectively searching for markets, and the M-Omulimisa initiative provides farmers with timely farming information and solutions in local languages through mobile phones.
Rwanda’s Buy-From-Women initiative has encouraged female farmers to adopt digital agriculture technologies for increased market access. The programme has been successful in providing digitally enabled platforms that connect these women to agribusiness information, financial instruments and produce markets.
This initiative has led to an improved agribusiness lifecycle — from planting to harvesting, processing, packaging, delivery and payment — for female farmers.
In Kenya, women in agriculture and agribusiness have started to use their smartphones to obtain crucial weather-related information that can help them to plan properly for suitable planting, harvesting and processing periods that maximise productivity and output.
The ability of women to access and use digital technologies effectively is critical to solving women’s digital challenges. Evidence from the Association for Progressive Communications suggests that women gaining access to digital platforms can also benefit their families, villages, communities and countries.
Connection and transformation
According to the Mastercard MEA SME Confidence Index, 79% of South African women-owned MSMEs have an online payment method in place, which is on par with their male counterparts.
The significant transformation of digital solutions is reflected through improved resilience and adaptability of many women-owned small businesses.
The Mastercard programme has committed to connect 25 million female entrepreneurs in Africa to the digital economy by 2025 through the provision of tools, financial literacy, and training as well as solutions they require to survive and prosper.
The programme has so far helped more than 3,000 women to improve their business skills, start their own enterprises and create new jobs.
Promoting gender equality in agriculture and agribusiness in Africa through digital agriculture remains important because it is an essential part of countries’ economic, social and political development.
African economies, therefore, need to adopt some of the existing best practices and strategies to remove the barriers that prevent women from leveraging the opportunities presented through digital transformation and consequently worsen the gender divide in agriculture and agribusiness. DM
Dr Mamello Nchake is a senior lecturer in the Department of Economics at Stellenbosch University.