Women hold the key to food security in Africa, say FAO and the African Union. However, the gender gap in farming is wide and opportunities remain unequal between men and women. How to close the gap? Enter technology and innovation.
A report from FAO and the African Union (AU) says that addressing the gender inequalities in Africa is a necessary step to end hunger by 2025. Indeed, a lot of work is still to be done here.
Figures show a significant gap between men and women in African farming: the female share of the agricultural labour force in sub-Saharan Africa is the highest in the world. In most sub-Saharan countries, women represent more than 50 percent of the workforce; in some areas more than 60 percent.
Yet, despite women making up the majority of farm workers, on average only 15% of landholders are women, and they receive less than 10% of available credit. The lack of access to financial services is only one of the factors putting women at a disadvantage in this scenario.
Female African farmers face many obstacles: denial of land rights, lack of access to lines of credit and appropriate technologies, and gaps in skills and information. In addition, female farmers are victims of very similar challenges facing many women worldwide: time constraints due to the hours of household work they are expected to perform on top of their farming activities.
In terms of production, women are also lagging behind men because they have limited access to agricultural extension services, preventing them from adopting technologies that would help increase their yields. As a result, a yield gap between men and women of 20% to 30% has been noted.
In a world where policies can be slow to address inequality, there is benefit in realising that technology can offer practical solutions to the long-standing problems that have deprived women from carving their place in the business, thus allowing the journey to gender equality to move forwards.
Technology for women empowerment
"When we look at the problems holding back production from smallholder farmers, such as lack of information and financial exclusion, we think those can all be solved with technology that is available to use," says Clinton van Eden, Head of Africa Operations of Block Commodities, a leading AgriTech company in Sub-Saharan Africa.
"Lack of information, funding and financial incentives, and the poor exchange practices hold back farmers’ production by 50% of its potential if the system worked at an optimal level."
One of the main issues holding back women from being more active in this sector is the lack of adequate documentation for land rights. The African Union gender equality commitments focus on achieving 30 percent documented land ownership and 50 percent finance for women by 2025.
Inequitable laws and practices are depriving women of their land, rights, and livelihoods. Technologies such as blockchain and smart contracts can provide secure land registries systems, as is already taking place in African countries.
Technological innovation can also ensure widening access to credit without discrimination, allowing women to grow their productivity. Local interest rates to purchase fertilisers can be as high as 45%, so they are not a viable option for smallholder farmers. Block Commodities is developing a system in which this rate can be reduced to 12% thanks to blockchain and cryptocurrencies.
“Our project represents a potentially significant reset for finance and commodities market development in Africa, a problem that is being addressed by bold and innovative technologies and partnerships. We are helping to empower African farmers through loans to purchase fertilizer and have better access to markets," says Chirs Cleverly, chairman of Block Commodities and advocate for black women’s rights.
Smart technologies such as machine learning, drones and predictive behavioural analytics offer accurate results for optimised performance, as well as lessening women’s physical burden through the use of machinery.
"New technologies are coming in to disrupt this model bringing access, data, and new resources. A single smartphone app can facilitate many processes, such as seamless payments, data gathering and comparing, resource locating and analysis. New technologies represent an invaluable opportunity for smart farming as they promote automation of agricultural processes, making muscular strength redundant" says Stefania Barbaglio, Director at Cassiopeia Services, which is working closely with many of Block Commodities’ projects.
"Technology really represents the main driver of farming’s feminisation in countries like Africa. Women who represent the lion’s share of agricultural labour will be the main ones to benefit from AgriTech innovations. We want to see women empowered and able to provide for their families."
Women also take fewer cooperative positions and leadership roles. Technology applications can not only improve production output but also provide them with the tools to help them raise their voices, ensuring they have a place in key conversations and expanding their influence in decision-making strategies.
Moreover, technology enables food security and development programmes to be taken beyond the agricultural sphere, contributing to other sectors such as infrastructure and education, promoting the narrowing of the gender gap in a multi-sectorial approach.
Real life impact is already tangible
Positive change is already noticeable in the life of farmers who are benefitting from innovation programmes.
Monica is a young smallholder farmer from Zambia who took her production from subsistence to commercial scale thanks to Block’s outreach. Block’s low-interest loan enabled Monica to produce enough 8 tons of maize, which is enough for her and her family, as well as a surplus which was commercialised and turned into income. Monica is now earning nearly 70% more than the Zambian minimum wage.
‘The core aim of technological developments is ultimately to improve human lives and drive positive change in the world. Technology is able to overcome this gender divide in African agriculture caused by years of unequal rights, discriminatory policies and government bureaucracies because technology sees no gender, it is made to create effective solutions,’ adds Chris Cleverly.