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Digital connectivity gives women agripreneurs in Africa a fighting chance
Author: Mamello Nchake
Published: 27/06/2022

​The annual Micro, Small and Medium-sized Enterprises Day (MSMEs) Day is celebrated on Monday 27 June. In an opinion piece for Daily Maverick, Dr Mamello Nchake from the Department of Economics writes that digital connectivity can give Africa's women a growing chance of competing in agriculture.

  • Read the article below or click here for the piece as published.

Mamello Nchake*

Every year on 27 June, Micro, Small and Medium-sized Enterprises Day (MSMEs) Day is celebrated to emphasise the important contribution small businesses make to economies around the world. This is also an opportune moment to shine a light on the challenges of women 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 Sustainable Development Goals, women farmers account for 40-50% of the total workforce in agriculture in Africa, and are responsible for producing 70% of food in the continent. However, evidence shows significant gender gaps of 40 percent in agricultural productivity, performance and profitability in sub-Saharan Africa, where women are about 20-30% 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 well-thought-out, tailor-made pro-women strategic interventions.

Digital solutions in agriculture (digital agriculture) can bridge these gaps by providing the necessary opportunities for women that give them 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, and 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 can access targeted agricultural information through a simple text or a voice message even without internet access.

Digital connectivity can also improve women's access to important agricultural information (e.g. market information, weather forecasts) that can help to increase their yields, income, and resilience against shocks. Digital connectivity can also provide women-owned MSMEs in agriculture access to trading opportunities provided by various trading platforms such as the recently implemented African Continental Free Trade Area. Digital technologies enable these businesses to improve their product traceability with also 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 women farmers in South Africa to use technology. So far more than 1,300 women farmers have been trained to develop their digital skills since its pilot in 2018 in rural areas of Limpopo and KwaZulu-Natal.

Women farmers who are digitally connected offer 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 the new digital skills, women farmers can transform their businesses through technology, and help increase productivity and reduce poverty in Africa. The Women in Farming programme is a three-year incubator aimed at empowering women entrepreneurs in agriculture through enhanced skills, to create jobs and generate income for their families. The programme will enroll 60 female entrepreneurs first in Kwazulu-Natal who, after presenting their agricultural business ideas, will receive training and mentorship on how to transform their businesses.

Further afield, the Women of Uganda Network offers training to over 100 women in agriculture on business profiling, mapping of gardens and effective search for markets, while 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 women 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. Subsequently, this initiative has led to an improved agribusiness lifecycle (from planting to crop harvest, processing, packaging, delivery, and payment) for women 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 would maximize productivity and output.

The ability of women to access and use digital technologies effectively is critical to solving women digital challenges. Evidence suggests that women gaining access to digital platforms can also benefit their families, villages, communities, and countries. 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 women entrepreneurs in Africa to the digital economy by 2025 through provision of tools, financial literacy, and training as well as solutions they require to survive and prosper. The programme has so far empowered over 3000 women entrepreneurs 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. Thus, African economies 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.

*Dr Mamello Nchake is a senior lecturer in the Department of Economics at Stellenbosch University.