In the spring of 2022, we taught a graduate level course titled “Agri-food Systems and Economic Development” in Georgetown University’s Global Human Development Program. One of the assignments was writing a policy brief on the impact of a major shock to food systems (such as a significant policy or technological change, natural disaster, or the COVID-19 pandemic) on a sub-population in a country or region. This post by Christian Kamm is based on the assignment. Another excellent policy brief from the same assignment, written by Siobhan Mitchell on the impact of Ireland’s excise tax on sugary drinks, has been published as a blog post on Georgetown’s Global Irish Studies site. The passion and intention with which future global development and health professionals such as Christian and Siobhan strive towards healthy, equitable and sustainable food systems is something to be hopeful about during a time of multiple global crises.—Devesh Roy, IFPRI Senior Research Fellow, and Ekin Birol, former IFPRI Senior Research Fellow.
Precision agriculture technology and digital services are rapidly changing food systems around the world. Mobile phones allow once-isolated communities to connect to new information networks and markets. Such technologies can have large benefits in countries where agriculture employs the bulk of the workforce and access to finance is still limited.
Women are key players in the production of food and the direction of agrifood businesses, yet are often marginalized in decision-making. They stand to gain significantly from the equalizing capabilities of mobile platforms, provided that digital entrepreneurs and organizations seriously consider gender as they design programs and innovations.
Mobile phone technologies in Tanzania
Tanzania presents a compelling case for how mobile programs can improve women’s financial and decision-making power, reinforcing their roles in food systems. As of September 2019, the country had 43.7 million mobile phone subscriptions among a population of 59 million, a 4.7% increase from the previous year. Some 29 million people had internet access in June 2022, according to Tanzania Communications Regulatory Authority data. Mobile money users comprise a similar rising share of the population.
One such program is a M-Pawa, a banking product introduced in 2014 by the Commercial Bank of Africa (Tanzania) (CBAT) and Vodacom via its M-Pesa mobile money service, which allows eligible users to save money, earn interest, and eventually obtain micro loans through their phones. This opportunity for personal savings and microcredit removes significant barriers to entry for unbanked individuals, households, and enterprises.
Telecom companies in Africa have successfully partnered with nonprofits to train farmers on market awareness and business management. In Kenya, Safaricom (the other network operator behind M-Pesa) has integrated a mobile phone service known as DigiFarm, which allows farmers access to low-cost inputs, credit providers, and bulk purchasers of their produce. Like M-Pesa, DigiFarm charges a small per-transaction percentage fee. The platform also offers training programs, insurance against weather damage, and extension services through remote agronomists. Additionally, online marketplaces accessible by smartphone are linking buyers and sellers without the need for an intermediary.
The impact on women in agribusiness and nutrition
Such mobile tools are already facilitating productivity gains and financial empowerment to women in Tanzania. But women start out at a considerable disadvantage.
Although they play a major role in the agriculture sector, women smallholders usually produce lower crop yields than men. A joint 2015 report from UN Women, the UN Development Programme (UNDP), the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), and the World Bank found that the gender gap in productivity—which can range from 4%-25% depending on country and crop—stems from women’s limited access to agricultural information and technology. This productivity gap was estimated to cost Tanzania $105 million annually.
Researchers in Tanzania found that virtually all male respondents use their phones to conduct agricultural activities, compared to only two thirds of female respondents (though many women without phones said they borrowed those of others for agriculture). Notably, most women surveyed had positive perceptions and trust in the benefits of mobile phones.
Mobile technologies can also benefit women at many points throughout food value chains. Women business owners must often cope with restricted access to market information, inadequate capital, gender discrimination, and lack of formal business training. Research on mobile application design in Tanzania has suggested that co-creation and co-design of services by the end-user is essential to app engagement and utility. The experiment—designing a mobile marketing application allowing women entrepreneurs to obtain and share information on market goods and identify possible buyers—underscores a need for women to be more involved in the design processes of the technology they use to navigate complex food systems.
In Tanzania, the mNutrition initiative leveraged an existing text message-based health communication campaign targeting pregnant women and mothers of young children to provide additional information on infant and young child feeding and the importance of dietary diversity for women. Access to the mNutrition service increased mobile phone use, sources of nutrition information, and trust in nutrition information received through different mediums. Such efforts to improve nutrition and diversify diets can help keep families healthy and spur opportunities for income generation from small-scale complementary agriculture.
Conclusion and recommendations
The case of Tanzania demonstrates the potential for mobile technology to expand women’s roles in agrifood systems, provided policymakers and tech advocates deliver the necessary infrastructure and design inclusive products. The feasibility and scalability of these app-based products in the face of various market and coordination failures offer the possibility of cost-effective, expansive solutions.
Programs focused on gender equality and women in agriculture should seek to introduce women, especially from low income backgrounds, to technology as a tool in agribusiness and financial management. Stakeholders should remain conscious of the barriers to women’s financial inclusion, both on the demand (bargaining power, time and resource constraints, digital literacy, societal norms) and supply side (not all credit suppliers, particularly formal financial institutions, are interested in servicing smallholders and businesses).
Women should be included in the design phase of these mobile applications. Ideally, options for conveying information should be made available in the languages of all targeted communities and, when that is not possible, demonstration videos, images, or interactive games can be shared (with alternatives to help reach those with disabilities, different learning styles, or literacy challenges).
Investors should look to scale up tools that allow community- or cooperative-based savings groups to migrate to digital platforms so that women farmers and entrepreneurs can own mobile wallets and access credit individually. Additionally, incentives and marketing activities should be aimed at companies that have implemented mobile savings, credit, insurance, and informational products but are not sufficiently targeting women. Finally, gender-disaggregated data can provide valuable insights into the economic behaviors of women. These data can be utilized to offer gender-responsive, tailored offerings that meet the financial priorities of women. For such interventions to be truly inclusive, data collection would need to go beyond the traditionally binary convention of gender, however difficult and delicate a task that may initially be.