How female agents foster inclusivity in digital agriculture

Digital agriculture solutions have potential to increase productivity, incomes, and livelihoods for smallholder farmers. Yet, only 25% of registered users in Africa are women, while field evidence shows that the gender gap could be wider when looking at usage of digital agriculture solutions.

There are many reasons causing this gap. Firstly, fewer women have access to or use mobile technology than men, and this true among farmers as well. For example, in 11 of the 12 survey countries in the 2022 GSMA Consumer Survey, women who work in agriculture were between 5% and 40% less likely than men to own a mobile phone. Female farmers are also more likely to feel that digital agriculture solutions are not relevant to them, especially when they are designed without considering women’s unique needs, circumstances, and challenges. Safety and security concerns also play a role in widening the gap, as interactions with predominantly male agents and purchasing clerks can make female farmers uncomfortable.

To bridge this gender gap, agritech companies must provide services with female farmers in mind. This can involve integrating female-friendly customer touchpoints that can build trust and be more approachable for female farmers. This blog explores how GSMA AgriTech Accelerator cohort members are expanding female representation in their agent networks to foster greater inclusivity in their user base.

Agents: a critical touchpoint in a customer journey

Combining agent-led and digital interactions proves most effective in reaching smallholder farmers with digital agriculture services. Agents help build trust with farmers and provide much-needed support at different steps of the customer journey, making them an essential part of the digital agriculture ecosystem (Figure 1).

Figure 1: How agents support farmers along their customer journey

Source: GSMA AgriTech

However, most agent networks are male-dominated, which can cause discomfort, and trust and security issues for female farmers. Research conducted by the GSMA AgriTech programme revealed that female farmers exhibited less trust in male agents, partly due to poor relationships and sometimes unethical behaviour.

“Sometimes [purchasing clerks] try to seduce me to have a relationship with them in return of favours such as being considered for a good payment [i.e., recording a higher weight than what the farmer delivered] or farming inputs or other services they give.”

Tanzanian female farmer

Other research conducted by the GSMA Mobile Money programme revealed a significant correlation between the percentage of female mobile money agents and the percentage of female mobile money customers. This suggests that having female agents can facilitate service adoption among women.

Leveraging female agents to promote female adoption and usage of digital agriculture solutions

Digital agriculture providers are increasingly exploring ways to make their solutions more gender-inclusive, recognising the vast market potential and social impact that female farmers represent. One approach is to increase female representation in their agent networks.

Here, we present the experiences of three GSMA AgritTech Accelerator cohort members in expanding female representation in their agent networks to foster greater inclusivity in their user base.

Raising awareness and driving adoption: The case of OKO in Mali

OKO provides automated and affordable crop insurance to secure the income of smallholder farmers in Africa. OKO leverages agents to build awareness, register farmers and address farmer enquiries about the service. In Mali, where OKO operates, the majority of farmers are female, yet male farmers make up most of OKO’s customers.

Acknowledging the vast untapped potential among female farmers, OKO decided to enhance female adoption by deploying more female customer touchpoints. With the assistance of UN Women, OKO embarked on a journey to create teams of female-only agents in the field and increase the number of female staff in its call centres.

This strategic move paid off as OKO managed to increase the share of female customers to its crop insurance service from 18% in December 2021 to 25% in July 2022, and to 32% in October 2023, with teams of female-only agents selling 3.2 times more policies to female farmers than the male-only or mixed agent teams. OKO observed that trust, a key adoption factor when selling insurance, was easier to establish with female farmers through female-only teams of agents. These teams were also better at targeting female farmers in rural communities.

With more than 90% of their call centre agents being female, OKO achieved higher safety and security when providing customer service. Female farmers were found to be more comfortable talking on the phone with other women, and they were less likely to hang up after hearing the operator’s voice.

Improving farmer profiling and capacity building: The case of Esoko in Ghana

Esoko provides smallholders with access to agronomic advice, agricultural inputs, and markets. It also offers turnkey solutions to deploy and deliver field surveys for data collection on behalf of agribusinesses and other agricultural ecosystem stakeholders. Esoko employs a network of agents who profile farmers, deliver capacity building on how to use the Esoko solution, and record farmer sales on the Esoko platform.

To empower women in rural communities and promote gender equality, Esoko actively recruits female agents, who currently make up 27% of their agent network.

Deploying female agents has delivered several benefits to farmers and the organisation. Esoko discovered that female agents are more diligent than men in data collection and foster an environment where female farmers feel comfortable sharing personal information. Esoko’s team also observed that female farmers are more likely to participate in training sessions, ask questions, and deepen their understanding of Esoko’s digital agriculture tool when training was facilitated by female agents. Furthermore, these female agents can serve as role models for other women in their communities, amplifying the impact.

Collecting farmer feedback for product improvement and impact assessment: The case of Jokalante in Senegal

Jokalante, an agritech company in Senegal, provides smallholder farmers with access to local weather and market data, as well as digital agronomic advisory. It employs a network of regional agents, of which one-third are women, to assist with data collection, user feedback surveys, and impact studies.

A female-founded agritech advocating for women’s empowerment among farming communities, Jokalante is committed to enrolling female agents. It sees female agents as key to building rapport and trust with female farmers, enabling richer feedback on their surveys compared to male agents. Jokalante observed that female farmers are more open to sharing feedback with female counterparts, which allowed the company to refine its services to better meet its female users’ needs and monitor the differentiated impact of its services on female and male farmers.

Navigating challenges in recruiting female agents

While leveraging female agents offers benefits in data collection, user enrolment, and customer service, agritech companies encounter difficulties in reaching gender balance across their agent networks. Social norms around women’s mobility and obligations often deter potential female candidates to agents’ roles.

OKO, Esoko and Jokalante report fewer applications from female candidates to roles that typically involve extensive travel hours and conflict with family duties. In some cases, female candidates require permission from parents or husbands to apply, which also limits the candidate pool. Even when women apply for agent roles, they may not have access to the mobile device required (smartphone or tablet) to be successful in their application. Both OKO and Esoko require candidates to have their own devices to be successful in the recruitment process.

The three agritech companies are finding ways to navigate these challenges:

  • OKO tries to reduce the number of trips female agents need to make to distant villages by streamlining their meeting schedules prior to their visit. These meetings are also typically scheduled in the morning, when women are more likely to be available.
  • Esoko facilitates inclusive access to smartphones through its ‘grain4phone’ initiative, which enables farmers to acquire smartphones using the proceeds from their harvest. This initiative played a pivotal role in assisting female farmers in accessing smartphones and qualifying them for agent roles.
  • Jokalante recruits agents on a part-time basis, enabling female agents to balance work and family responsibilities. The company also advertises roles on media channels frequently used by women.

Conclusion

The experiences of OKO, ESOKO, and Jokalante demonstrate that female-friendly distribution models foster greater trust, comfort, and engagement among female farmers. Female agents can also enable more comprehensive feedback to refine agritech solutions based on female farmers’ needs. These models are particularly important in contexts where social norms limit female farmers’ interactions outside of the household.

While leveraging the potential of female agents is a significant stride towards fostering more inclusive digital agriculture ecosystems, it should complement other impactful gender-inclusive measures to fully unlock the benefits of digitisation for female farmers. We warmly invite you to explore our comprehensive gender-inclusive toolkit for digital agriculture, offering a wealth of practical recommendations on how to strengthen the inclusivity of a digital agriculture service.

The GSMA AgriTech Accelerator is funded by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), and supported by the GSMA and its members.

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