The South African labour market is more conducive to men than it is to women, with the latest statistics putting female unemployment at 37.3%, according to Statistics South Africa. Women are often overlooked in various industries in South Africa. For example, there is one woman for every seven men employed in mining, one woman for every six men employed in construction and one woman for every three men employed in agriculture.
Despite women accounting for about 43% of the African agricultural labour force, the productivity gap between women and men persists. In 2019, UN Women estimated that this productivity gap ranges between 10% and 28% in Sub-Saharan Africa. This is driven by limited access to productive inputs, limited access to financial and banking facilities and systematic and cultural frameworks. The advent of digital technology in agriculture (agritech) has made accessing markets, agribusiness information and financial services easier for farmers. The use of agritech has the potential to raise yield and increase productivity by more than 50%, according to The Digitisation of African Agriculture Report 2018-2019. This therefore begs the question of whether agritech could be a workable solution for female empowerment and unemployment in South Africa.
How agritech helps
Agritech is described as technology and innovations that are applied in agricultural activities that increase production with fewer inputs and make agricultural practices more accurate. Quicker farming machines, crop improvements and digital supply chain monitoring are all visible examples of agritech. These revolutionary technological innovations have the potential to level the playing field for women farmers by making the farming process more efficient and rewarding.
For example, women farmers in Niger benefitted from Netafim’s solar-powered drip irrigation systems which reroutes water from water sources directly to farms. Netafim has taught more than 300 farmers, about 50% of which are women, how to use the technology. Farmers who have benefited from this initiative have recorded water savings of 30% to 40%. This programme has greatly increased women’s ability to contribute to economic areas in Niger as they are now able to take part in a wider range of agricultural tasks, allowing them to move higher up the farming food chain. As a result of this innovation, women farmers have been able to earn more money from their farms because of increased okra and watermelon produce, allowing them to be able to send their children to school, relocate to more suitable housing and create jobs for other females.
In Rwanda, UN Women introduced the Buy from Women digital platform which provides women farmers with access to agribusiness information, financial instruments and produce markets. The digital platform empowers rural women by assisting them to determine their actual land size for production forecasting and understanding market prices. Access to precise land size forecasting technologies allows women farmers in Rwanda to effectively forecast yields and better reflect their production prospects to financial institutions when getting loans and to buyers putting these farmers in a better negotiating position. The key aspects of agritech such as Internet of Things (IoT) devices, access to market information, digital payment and billing services will go strides in differentiating and digitising the women farmer’s experience, attracting more women to work in this industry.
Agritech has reduced the amount of labour required in agricultural practices, freed up time for women in agriculture to participate in other activities and has increased profitability for female farmers. All these factors serve to attract more women to this industry.
Call to action
As a result of the advent of agritech, women might consider participating in agricultural operations as a means of creating employment for themselves and other women. Agritech is not tightly regulated in South Africa and instead, support to adopt such technologies into agricultural methods is growing. This was demonstrated in 2018 by the minister of agriculture, forestry and fisheries, who released a draft Climate Smart Agriculture Strategic Framework that advocated for agritech to be incorporated into farming methods. So, what can be done to encourage more women to take advantage of agritech’s emergence and the benefits it brings?
There is a need for policy reform; reducing hurdles that female farmers face in the industry would increase female participation rate. Policy measures and support could include the implementation of binding regulatory laws requiring financial institutions to have a minimum exposure to the female agricultural sector; by doing so, the government will ensure that smallholder female farmers have more equal access to formal financing which would enable them to purchase and use agritech.
The introduction of agricultural advances necessitated the provision of training and instruction, particularly for rural women farmers who may not have adequate formal schooling. Extension services and state sponsored agricultural training programmes are needed to guarantee that women farmers are aware of these technologies and how to apply them. To ensure that no one is left behind, training must be taken to the grassroots level of the female agriculture sector.
According to General Household Survey, only 8,3% of South African families have access to a fixed internet connection at home, indicating that broadband penetration in rural homes is close to non-existent. Both the private and public sectors should invest more in innovations that do not require internet access, work well on the most basic cell phones and those that consider different languages spoken by people. This helps to broaden the reach of agritech, ensuring that the average woman farmer in rural areas benefits from agritech innovations. WeFarm, for example, does not require internet connectivity and operates in English and other local Kenyan languages.
South African female farmers’ use of agritech can be boosted if the government and donor organisations offer incentives to agritech firms that serve women. By encouraging agritech companies to work more closely with women farmers and providing them with the technical expertise and knowledge needed for using agricultural innovations, they can establish sustainable agricultural practices that increase productivity. This will transform small-scale agribusinesses into commercially viable enterprises. Finally, with the emergence of agritech, more women might become agricultural entrepreneurs which will help foster their employment in the sector. The agriculture industry has a lot of potential to close the unemployment gender gap in society but only if both the public and private sectors work together.