Closing Africa’s gender tech gap will boost agri-food systems

Douglas Okwatch: Sierra Leone Telegraph: 4 October 2023:

Women in agriculture still have significantly less access than men to mechanised equipment, according to The Status of Women in Agrifood Systemsa report released in 2023 by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).

The report is based on an investigation of the agri-food systems, the role of gender and work in the sector, the existing inequalities in resource distribution, women’s agency, norms and policies, and resilience to shocks and stresses.

It shows that both men and women are equally likely to adopt new technologies when enabling factors are in place, underscoring the importance of ensuring equal access to productive resources for both genders.

The quantity and quality of digital technologies available to farmers and other agrifood-system actors have advanced significantly since the 1990s when modern personal-use technology, such as mobile phones, personal computers, internet-based services, and applications first took off.

The study shows that internet access has increased globally for both men and women while the gender gap has reduced slightly. As of 2022, 63 per cent of women globally were using the internet, compared with 69 percent of men, according to Statistica, a leading provider of market and consumer data.

Additionally, access to the internet is positively correlated with income, as both men and women with higher incomes are more likely to have internet access. Also, internet penetration rates are considerably higher in urban areas than in rural areas.

Unfortunately, the report highlights that the gender gap in internet use in Africa remains the largest. In 2022, 25 percent fewer women used the internet compared to men, a gap that has remained constant since 2019, according to the study.

This disparity extends to the agricultural sector, where the study established that as more women take up employment in non-agricultural segments of agri-food systems, gaps in access to relevant technologies become more evident.

“We really have to work hard to address the underlying causes of inequality, which are social norms or policies,” says Lauren Phillips, Deputy Director, Inclusive Rural Transformation and Gender Equality of the FAO.

Besides, Ms. Phillips notes that “Gender-transformative approaches to changing restrictive social norms are cost-effective and have high returns, but more work is needed on developing pathways to implement gender-transformative approaches at scale.”

She adds: “Increasing women’s empowerment is essential for women’s well-being and has a positive impact on agricultural production, food security, diets, and child nutrition.”

Yet, access to agricultural and agri-food system technologies is crucial for increasing agricultural productivity.

Unfortunately, in Zambia, post-harvest tangible losses of female fish processors are estimated to be three times greater than those of male processors, in part because women lack access to processing technologies, the study notes.

In Uganda, the reduced gap in access to improved seeds is driven mainly by fewer male-headed farms using improved seeds in 2014 compared to 2010.

Yet women also commonly have fewer opportunities to receive information on improved agricultural technologies, despite their ability to adopt and utilize those technologies effectively.

Men were generally trained on new agricultural technologies directly by extension staff and became early technology adopters. Women, on the other hand, received second-hand information on these technologies through their male relatives, which delayed their uptake of these technologies, the study found.

An important barrier for women is that machinery and tools continue to be designed primarily with male farmers and male workers in mind.

“We need to empower women to have a smarter role in decision-making, and in products, in their farms, in their families and in life generally,” says Ms. Phillips.

The design of technology should consider the preferences and constraints of women, the study recommends, noting that in Ethiopia, Ghana, and Tanzania, women did not typically use motorised pumps because of the perceived technological complexity of the pumps, the physical strength needed to operate them, and challenges in hiring and supervising labourers.

We need to empower women to have a smarter role in decision-making, and in products, in their farms, in their families and in life generally.

However, decisions on how to utilise technology and who in the household will benefit from it reflect different interests of male and female members of the household, the study highlights.

In Ethiopia, the study finds that women preferred solar pumps over pumps powered by internal combustion engines.

It notes that ICTs have the potential to deliver a wide range of economic, environmental and social benefits by increasing access to services in rural areas, reducing transaction costs, optimising the use of inputs and natural resources, and strengthening resilience to shocks and crises.

However, the study cautions that the exponential spread and scale-up of ICTs for agriculture in recent years can also exacerbate existing inequalities. The digital gaps between developed and developing countries and between rural and urban areas persist.

Rural women are particularly less likely to have access to digital technologies or to use them, which is closely linked to gender differences in access to other infrastructure, especially electricity. It means access to electricity is gendered, with men and women having different opportunities to determine how electricity is provided and who benefits from its use.

  • Africa – 25% fewer women use the internet compared to men
  • In sub-Saharan Africa – 13% of women are less likely to own a mobile phone than men

Energy poverty at the household level has wide-ranging negative impacts on women’s welfare in terms of health, time use and employment, and access to information, services, and technologies.

The gender gap in mobile-phone ownership varies between regions, the study notes. In 2020, low- and middle-income countries in South Asia had the widest gender gap, with women 19 percent less likely than men to own a mobile phone, followed by sub-Saharan Africa (13 percent) and the Near East and North Africa (9 percent).

Rural women are less likely to own a mobile phone compared to rural men, according to data from the 2021 GSMA consumer survey.

Access to mobile internet has increased substantially for both women and men in recent years, but the gender gap has started to widen again, the study notes again. Moreover, in rural areas, even when people are aware of mobile internet, a range of barriers prevent its use, including poor literacy levels and a lack of digital skills.

These barriers tend to disproportionately affect women and rural populations because of structural inequalities and social norms, often resulting in rural women having lower education levels and subsequently lower incomes, the study highlights.

As a way forward, the report suggests that digital technologies can be leveraged to close gender gaps in resources.

Digitalisation, it emphasises, offers great potential for closing the gender gaps in access to resources, including extension and advisory services, business training, markets and market information, finance and savings options.

Empowering women and closing gender gaps in agri-food systems can lead to significant benefits for the well-being of women and their households.

About the author

Lauren Phillips, Deputy Director, Inclusive Rural Transformation and Gender Equality at FAO says increasing women’s empowerment has a positive impact on agricultural production, food security, diets, and child nutrition.


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