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Technology helps Africa's women farmers close the gap

Thursday, 23 October 2014 08:15 GMT

A smallholder farmer works in her fields in Meru, Kenya. TRF/Sophie Mbugua

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Women are the mainstay of food production but have long suffered from poor access to information and advice

NAIROBI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Women farmers are the backbone of food production in much of Africa, but have long suffered from limited access to information and advice. In the continent’s east, new technologies and conventional media are now being used to help fill that gap.

Jane Kaburia, a small-scale farmer in the heart of Kenya’s Meru County, says erratic weather, poor seeds, expensive fertiliser and a lack of agricultural advice are among the challenges she and other farmers face in the region.

She has never come across an extension officer. “We take it on ourselves to seek out people who are knowledgeable on farming issues,” she said.

When Kaburia tried to plant French beans, they became infected by yellowish rust and dried up, so she gave up and started growing tree tomato (tamarillo). She has also struggled with seeds purchased from farm dealers that never germinated or yielded little.

Women produce as much as 80 percent of basic foodstuffs for household consumption and sale in sub-Saharan Africa and account for 70 percent of agricultural workers, according to the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO). They also carry out 60 to 90 percent of marketing.

But many African governments have failed to ensure agricultural services are delivered effectively to disadvantaged groups, particularly rural women, says a new report from the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI).

Instead non-profit groups have stepped up to boost access to agricultural extension and advisory services with new approaches for reaching rural women farmers.

They are using communications technology and other media to spread knowledge about what works in increasingly climate-stressed conditions, and how to overcome challenges. Tools include cell phones, video footage of farmers, and community radio discussions among women.


Peterson Mwangi, a project manager at ActionAid Kenya, said his organisation is addressing women’s needs through tailored extension and advisory services that draw on real experience.

“Farmers do the experiments or trials of various technologies on their farm, then adopt what they feel is best suited for them,” he explained.

The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), an international partnership that supports African farmers, is promoting mobile phone use to disseminate information on markets, seeds, pests and diseases along the agricultural value chain.

AGRA is working with local mobile network providers and IT developers to create agricultural apps and ensure the credibility of the information transmitted.

Doris Anjawa, field coordinator for the AGRA-funded Rural Outreach Program Africa (ROPA) in western Kenya, said mobile phones allow timely contact with more women farmers, even in remote areas. These women can now be mobilised for training or field days.

“Sharing information has become much easier as I can communicate to a woman farmer in a language she understands,” Anjawa said.

The farmers often send text (SMS) messages about their problems to group leaders, who then follow up with Anjawa to find solutions.

Jikoni, which translates loosely as “the Kitchen”, is a community group working with ROPA in Vihiga sub-county, made up of 200 women farmers.

“Women in rural areas are very busy with household chores, family and livestock,” said Jikoni’s chairperson Violet Lodenyi. “We are glad we no longer have to visit the agricultural office. When we have a problem or need clarification, we just send an SMS, and feedback is given instantly.”


The programme collaborates with local radio stations to provide platforms for rural women and extension service providers to discuss issues affecting women farmers.

“We conduct research and identify when the women are available to listen to the radio programme, then alert them though text message with the details,” explained Anjawa.

“I have benefited a lot from the radio discussions especially since my maize used to be affected by striga (a parasitic weed),” said Roselinda Awinja, a member of the Esirave women’s group in Kakamega county. “We appreciate the radio programmes as they are in the local dialect and air when we are free to listen,” she added.

AGRA is encouraging women in Kenya, Mozambique and Ethiopia to share their experiences and successes with other farmers through video. They are trained to record their stories, and the videos are shown at community forums, followed by discussions moderated by a woman extension agent.

“Seeing is believing!” said Anjawa. “It becomes plausible when a woman in your village has tested the new methods and succeeded in a particular area.”

Increasing access to agricultural resources among women could boost agricultural productivity by up to 30 percent and reduce the number of hungry people by 150 million, according to the FAO.

Simon Muindi, a food security analyst with FAO Kenya, said all projects reviewed by his office must have gender-responsive budgets, and comply with a basic principle that 30 percent of the project should focus on women.


Still, providing farm extension and advisory services remains a challenge in many developing countries grappling with limited budgets. Only 15 percent of the world’s extension agents are women.

In Kakamega, there is just one extension agent for every 1,500 families or more, in contrast with the recommended ratio of 1 to 500, lamented one county official.

“Women are comfortable with fellow women extension service providers, especially when dealing with messages that involve decision making at the family level…but the number of women extension service providers is limited,” said Martin Odendo, a scientist at the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization in Kakamega.

Media and communications technology can substitute for this shortage of extension staff to some extent.

Over the past year, at least 70 percent of the 2,000 women targeted by ActionAid’s project in eastern Kenya have received extension messages, Mwangi said. And AGRA reckons that up to 50 to 60 percent of women farmers are reached in Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique and Uganda, mainly through radio and SMS.

Yet Qureish Noordin, an AGRA programme officer, points out that adoption of modern farming techniques is very low due to financial constraints among women.

“We have to go the extra mile to put in place mechanisms that will ensure women have access to the inputs they need,” he said.

(Editing by Megan Rowling)

Sophie Mbugua is a journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya, who writes about food and agriculture, climate change and gender issues.

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