How Technology is changing the Lives of African Women in Agriculture

Women in developing countries account for close to a half of the agricultural labor force, in some regions going as far as to breach the 50 percent mark – Eastern and Southern Africa, for instance. In fact, a report by the UN established that 7 out of 10 agricultural workers are female.

Regardless, there still exists a huge productivity gap between men and women farmers.

Interestingly, the underlying feeling on the continent is that despite the woes facing the female farmer, women are still the backbone of food production in Africa. It’s a fact that traces its roots back to the old African society when women were the prime gatherers.

Research into family farms across the years has consistently demonstrated that women farmers enjoy lower productivity compared to their male counterparts, with the deficit estimated to be quite substantial in sub-Saharan Africa. This, despite the fact that empirical evidence suggests that women could increase agricultural yield if they had access to the same inputs as men.

And the reasons behind this disparity?

Well, lack of access to agricultural inputs has been cited as one, never mind the fact that women own less than one percent of land in sub-Saharan Africa, according to OECD. Second, limited access to female-friendly agricultural technologies and innovations has been cited as another prevalent cause. The MoneyMaker technology for irrigation and the briquette machine (meant to ease women’s energy needs), for example, have been revealed to be disadvantageous to women considering the physical strength required to operate them.

Bridging the Gap

The continent is continually witnessing new technologies being introduced in a bid to boost production and bridge this gap which has been stark as the African day and night, with women farmers being particular beneficiaries.

Numerous initiatives have been instituted by various entities including individuals (either acting independently or at a communal level), startups and non-profit groups, governments (local and foreign) and the private sector, as well as international bodies.

The Tech Incursion

One of the ways the various groups have stepped up as they seek to reach rural women farmers is using communications technology and other media.

With countries such as Kenya having one of the highest mobile (and smartphone) penetration rates in the world, the use of mobile technologies (including apps) has especially been extremely effective. We are witnessing the adoption of the same all across the continent, from South Africa and Malawi, to Nigeria and Ghana, right through the entire East Africa.

Such ventures in mobile and digital technologies have spawned a new industry called ‘ag-tech’.

Take MFarm, for instance. The revolutionary mobile app built by Kenyan women Linda Kwamboka, Jamila Abass and Susan Ogoya back in 2010 aims to eliminate the middleman from the supply chain and also update farmers on current agricultural prices across the country. The app, which has landed the women on Forbes 20 Youngest Power Women list, also acts as a networking platform where farmers can connect to market their goods in larger quantities.

Esoko is another popular platform that lets farmers, both men and women, track and share market intelligence. The app that allows for customization is used across Africa to link farmers to markets with current location-specific market prices, including buyer offers, among a host of other resourceful features.

Agricultural technology to the aid of the African woman farmer

The beauty of agricultural apps is that they are not gender-specific, allowing both female and male farmers to reap their benefits.

Let’s cast the net a little wider…

A group of women in Morogoro, Tanzania have found an effective way to grind nuts using a peanut sheller that can shell up to 20kg of nuts in under 5 minutes – an endeavor that used to last an entire day using bare hands. Needless to say the high yields have led to increased sales that they could only dream about.

Similarly, the Bill and Melinda Gates-funded 3D4AGDEV program is working closely with women in Malawi – where female smallholders shell groundnuts by hand – to develop new or improved labor-saving agri-tools.

The Tanzanian Jitambue women group designed a rice winnower technology that separates rice from chaff (and other foreign elements) by generating wind. A process that used to take a full day to clean a 100-kg bag of rice now takes three hours to winnow six 100-kg bags – and they aren’t required to stand the whole time or be in constant motion.

Women in Uganda are using the CHAI (Climate Change Adaptation and ICT) to predict and adapt their farming projects to the increasingly sporadic weather patterns. The project uses SMS and interactive voice response, email, FM radio broadcast, as well as face-to-face meetings to provide farmers with guidance on flood and drought coping mechanisms, and also to help them decide when, what, where and how to produce and market.

While we can’t deny the fact that African women farmers have indeed made great industry leaps thanks to agricultural technology, a gender lens would still go a long way in extending the gains made from such efforts. In turn, agricultural productivity would but go further up, while the time constraints on women would be reduced the more.