Why Women Aren’t Using Your Ag App
This post is written by Revi Sterling, Director, USAID W-GDP WomenConnect.
While being a part of ICTforAg was a great chance to reconnect and learn, it is amazing to me that we need to have conversations about the need to engage female farmers in AgTech. After all, Stamp’s Technology, Gender, and Power in Africa was first written in 1989 when I read it on microfiche, and little seems to have changed.
Agriculture is sexist. Poverty is sexist. And certainly, technology is sexist. These are three tenets that anyone working at the intersection of development and technology should inherently know, without the assistance of a “gender specialist.” How is it that technology advocates remain so blind to gender (and other) biases that are imbued in many software platforms and services? Far earlier than Stamp, Conway warned us about this phenomenon in technology in 1967, that any technology reflects the values of its creator. So when a white western software developer creates a crop management application for women in rural Mozambique – even if this developer served in the Peace Corps in Mali 15 years ago and focused on poultry initiatives – the result is not going to be a raging success.
In fact, our best AgTech minds collectively do not have a stellar track record outside of their good intentions. The uptake across this industry is abysmal, and this is not because the “end user” is not seeing the value proposition. It is because this customer, which is a far better way to reframe the relationship between implementer and intended that removes the latter out of the category of “charity case,” is not getting what s/he wants.
While we continue to follow the popular “challenge” model of digital development and hope that one thousand flowers bloom, let’s look at what happens when the bloom withers. AgTech apps are not being used to the degree we want and expect them to be: Krell’s work that shows only 25% of mobile-owning farmers use their mobiles for agricultural information, despite the dozens of applications than have been deployed up and down the Rift Valley. “The Revolution of Mobile Phone-Enabled Services for Agricultural Development (m-Agri Services) in Africa: The Challenges for Sustainability” in the November 2019 issue of Sustainability takes this further, yet barely mentions gender. Wyche and Olsen focus more specifically on women’s AgTech use, and the non-Kenyan-focus in the Feed the Future Bangladesh digital agriculture assessment (authored by Strategic Impact Advisors for DAI) rounds out the global context. These and a larger literature review on ICT4D failures and mismatches should be required reading for all of the eternal optimists and technology determinists, who buy the hype that technology has the “potential” to revolutionize agricultural value chains in developing countries.
Of course, all technology has potential when modeled in the vacuum of our whiteboards and proposals. Rural smallholder farmer women do not live in vacuums. They live in tenuous economies that are challenged with migration, climate change, and societal challenges that implementers can barely conceptualize. If the AgTech application does not demonstrate tangible value immediately, it will not be used.
This is not necessarily a “doom and gloom” post. I also support the narrative that technology can be a catalyst of women’s empowerment, especially in agriculture. Women farmers are the backbone of society – and we should prioritize them in development interventions. Digital development can scale and sustain information services in unprecedented ways. The combination of women and tech could be a major force-multiplier effect in development. We keep missing that opportunity, however, by creating and deploying tech that further marginalizes the very population we need to be flooding with support and effective programming. I cover that in my ICTforAg video, which is a starting point to learn more about the dynamics and consequences of the gender digital divide. The more that donors and funders move toward digital development strategies across all traditional development sectors, the more women are falling behind. The faster that technology moves, the slower the trickle-down rate to women. It is a truly unbalanced equation.
It is imperative that we change this trend. To reset our conventional wisdom on AgTech, I would recommend starting with a review of the ICT for Ag video and general work on the gender digital divide, and then move to a deep-dive into the specific local context for more impactful development that isn't distorted by perception. Third, do your research on what AgTech offerings have been rolled out over the years in the region – what was used? What was not? What was the impact? Why do we have 10 applications doing the exact same thing? What information sources will women trust and use? What information needs do they have that are not being met? A desk review to respond to an RFP is simply not adequate, and it just perpetuates Conway’s Law.
For those who truly want to do the right thing by women farmers and women across agricultural value chains, study what does work, highlighted below:
- Text-free user interfaces, community radio, Interactive Voice Response (IVR) and non-mobile phone solutions. How else do you expect to reach low-literacy populations, populations without access to smartphones (or who have such old smartphones that they cannot run any new applications), and people for whom phone airtime and charging is simply a tax (yes, most of these are women)? Medhi et al’s seminal Text-Free User Interfaces for Illiterate and Semiliterate Users should inform anyone’s work to reach hard-to reach populations. Amplio’s Talking Book has been a huge success in Ghana for the very reason that it is not a mobile phone, has a one-to-many model and does not get stolen or appropriated by other family members. Partner with the people who know what they are doing. VIAMO is expanding for a reason, and now they have added basic digital literacy skills for women to their offerings. Gram Vaani has advanced tagging and search features built into IVR. There is no extra credit for rolling your own solution. The competitive model preferred by donors to show “openness” and encourage competition is silly, when collaboration puts many better minds on a problem to solve it quickly.
- Examples that women understand. Female examples, role models and avatars in the applications that speak the same dialect, invoke common cultural context and leverage local knowledge build trust. Make these digital women relatable, but do not make them cartoons or game-ify the solution. We are dealing with adults. ZMQ, Equal Access International and many other implementers know that you have to intimately know your audience. “Experts” in an application are isolating and promote a power relation we need to minimize. No one does this better than Digital Green, where the famers are the stars of the show. A little public recognition, especially for women, goes a long way to change the gender dynamic.
- De-gendered technology. When gender complexity is just too big of a barrier to work with and around, de-gender the technology. Dodson’s work in Morocco removes the strict cultural mores that prohibit unrelated men and women from working together and is moving toward a fully symbol- and numeric-based system, where “Phone 6,” not Fatima, is calling Marouane. In a time when global newspapers are filled with stories of honor killings based on women’s social media use, women’s safety and empowerment can go hand in hand when we are both creative and have done deep ethnographies in areas where gendered technology use is sanctioned. Under what conditions can women use technology? This needs to be the first question, which often requires extensive work with power-brokers in the community to achieve explicit permission.
- Confidence and training. Women will not use mobile phones or the internet if they feel they are too stupid to use them. Confidence is as much of a requirement as connectivity. Combine your AgTech app with programming that encourages and builds women’s agency, both online and in real life. Explore the power of technology-mediated venues to promote women’s knowledge and accomplishments. Early in my research career, we studied the impact of women reporting agricultural information on community radio; their own husbands were amazed that their wives were so smart and commented: “If the radio station thinks my wife is wise, I should listen to her.” Technology can amplify empowerment.
- Female leadership and a seat at the table. Promote the men and employers that make sure women are included in all aspects of using AgTech. Go as far to mandate women’s involvement and leadership. Deploy solutions specifically to women – they are the ones who are going to stay in the community in most cases, when men have to migrate to cities or countries abroad (not always the case, of course, especially with domestic work and trafficking). Take a page from an organization like AfChix, who sets up community networks – community-based ISPs – in places where providing connectivity is simply too cost-prohibitive for commercial players. Women are the network managers, engineers and trainers. AfChix has upended the usual paradigm and created a new social norm, where women = internet.
These are but a few positive examples, as unfortunately, there are far more failures than successes.
The evidence and models are out there, so why are we still talking about how women are not using AgTech? It is not the women. It is us.