Bridging the gender gap in agriculture: Can Agricultural VAS address the issue?

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) published its annual report on The State of Food and Agriculture in 2011, with a focus on Closing the Gender Gap for Development. It analyses the important role women farmers play in poverty reduction and productivity growth in developing countries and states that:

Solid empirical evidence shows that if women farmers used the same level of resources as men on the land they farm, they would achieve the same yield levels […] Bringing yields on the land farmed by women up to the levels achieved by men would increase agricultural output in developing countries between 2.5 and 4 percent. Increasing production by this amount could reduce the number of undernourished people in the world in the order of 12–17 percent. According to FAO’s latest estimates, 925 million people are currently undernourished. Closing the gender gap in agricultural yields could bring that number down by as much as 100–150 million people. (The State of Food and Agriculture 2010-11, p.vi)

International development agencies, organisations and donors are finally realising that the integration of an appropriate gender framework into the strategic and operational planning of agri programs is vital to their success, rather than just a minor contributory factor. However, there is still a long way to go before effective means of addressing the gender gap are identified and widely implemented.

Through a series of on-the-ground implementations and research studies, our mAgri team has identified very low usage of mobile agricultural solutions by female farmers. Lower access to technology obviously contributes to lower productivity by women farmers analysed by the FAO report. Usage indicators do vary from country to country, depending on cultural and historical specifics; however, overall trends remain the same: women not only have fewer possibilities to access technology as a source of agricultural information, but they also have fewer opportunities to actively use the solutions available. Findings from the GSMA mAgri project with IFFCO Kisan Sanchar Ltd (IKSL) in India, which provides agricultural tips and advice via mobile phone to rural smallholder farmers, show that only 13% of users are women, and only 2% of active users of the service are female. The agricultural helpline M-Kilimo, a GSMA mAgri project in Kenya, has indicated that although 31% of the entire user-base are women farmers, only 19% of the regularly active users are female. However, this low direct access to technological solutions is somewhat mitigated by information and knowledge sharing in the farmer families and communities. For example, monitoring study of IKSL project in India by CABI indicated that 65% of service users share the information they receive with their families, friends and neighbours.

There is a set of factors that limits the ability of technology to bridge the gap in knowledge access for the women farmers. The barriers to mobile phone access identified in the GSMA Women & Mobile report – high total cost of ownership, cultural barriers discouraging female ownership of productive assets and technical literacy issues – apply to women farmers’ access to agricultural VAS. These cultural barriers, as well as lower educational and literacy levels amongst women farmers reinforce the gap in technology access and usage.

Recognizing the challenges for channelling agricultural information to women farmers, the current GSMA mFarmer Initiative carefully implements the gender guidelines for its projects. By identifying traditionally female activities in agriculture and creating relevant women-centred content, mobile agriculture solutions increase the chances for the information to reach women farmers. Customizing the service marketing for women users, using women-centred distribution channels such as female self-help groups and women’s cooperatives have also proved to be efficient methods of reaching female farmers. The lower literacy level of women farmers could be addressed by voice-based solutions as opposed to traditional text-heavy services.

By customizing the product offerings to the female customers’ needs, Agri VAS providers could expand the potential market for the services with women becoming a more important segment of the companies’ customer base. At the same time as mobile service providers increase their user base, women are getting access to life-changing products and services that benefit them, their families and their whole communities.

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