Automation and digitalisation – Opportunities to enhance women’s agricultural productivity

Automation and digitalisation – Opportunities to enhance women’s agricultural productivity

The world is beginning to recognise that the face of the African farmer is female. In some parts of Africa and Asia, women constitute up to 60% of the agricultural labour force, growing about 70% of Africa’s food, and contribute 21% of sub-Saharan Africa’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Women farm for household consumption, work as farm labourers to earn an income, farm for commercial purposes, and trade. However, many women, particularly rural African women, have limited access to resources to make farming a productive endeavour.

The FAO estimates that if women had the same access as men to production resources such as information, seeds, fertiliser, extension services, markets, and technologies, agricultural yields on their farms could increase by 20–30%. One major constraint preventing women from accessing these resources is balancing household responsibilities – such as looking after children, cooking, and cleaning – with agricultural activities. Often, women cannot travel long distances to access markets to sell produce or purchase inputs (fertiliser, seeds, etc.). Furthermore, they cannot take significant time away from the home to participate in agricultural training.  Innovation and technology could reduce travel time  to access markets and other resources necessary for enhancing agricultural productivity.

The theme for International Women’s Day this year, celebrated on the 8th of March, is “DigitALL: Innovation and technology for gender equality”. Digitalisation takes systems or processes and adapts them to be operated by computers. Digitalisation thus makes complex processes easier to manage. For example, instead of calling a taxi company to make a reservation, most people these days simply pull out their phones and use Uber to request a ride online. Such technologies can improve female farmers’ connections to markets and training services. Imagine a female farmer in a remote area being able to use her smartphone to request an Uber package delivery of fertiliser or sell her produce using an application that links her to a buyer in seconds.

Technology is fundamental to improving women’s agricultural productivity, but in the development of such technology, we need to bear in mind women’s social and cultural contexts. For example, mobile phones have an extensive reach in Africa and have penetrated even the most remote areas. Globally, mobile phones are providing valuable information related to agriculture, early disaster warnings, and so forth. However, data from 2017 showed that, in sub-Saharan Africa, women were 14% less likely to own a mobile phone than men and 25% less likely to have internet access. In a recent study that our FSNet-Africa research team conducted in Ghana, we found that not many people have access to smartphones. Therefore, while agricultural digitalisation is the ideal solution, it will take time to become a reality for many rural African communities.

Alternative technologies

Low-hanging fruit exists to advance digitalisation in conjunction with automation. Automation makes existing tools easier to use. For example, a mini-combine harvester (a car-like, compact machine used for harvesting) can be used instead of a sickle to harvest crops. This not only makes the harvesting process less tiring but also more efficient.

Another example is rice mill operations, which involve intense manual labour in the operation of the mill. At a typical rice mill, the women are tasked with measuring rice into sacks and then completing the bagging process. If the rice mill were automated, the process would be more efficient because it would take less time and effort to bag the rice.

Figure 1. A typical rice mill

Photo credit: Selorm Dorvlo

It is comparatively easier to implement automation than digitalisation in terms of the level of technology required and the initial funds that need to be invested. Whilst a simple knapsack sprayer (used for pest control) can be automated to ensure its operation is not manual, introducing sensors on the farm to aid the digitalisation of the application of chemicals will be more cost-intensive. Investment is more significant for digitilisation than automation because automation can easily be achieved by adapting/improving existing equipment.

While both types of technologies would require some level of training for uptake, automation might be more readily adopted because it uses equipment and tools that communities are already familiar with. Similarly, adapting existing automated technologies for use by women could increase women’s uptake of technologies to enhance their productivity. For example, our study in Ghana found that it was socially inappropriate for women to use a power tiller (used for preparing the soil, sowing seeds, as well as adding and spraying fertilisers, herbicides, and water) because of the level of vibration and physical stress of operating this equipment. Consequently, women generally do not own such equipment because it is not socially and culturally acceptable.

Figure 2. Power tiller being used for land preparation

Photo credit: Selorm Dorvlo

Both automation and digitalisation can mitigate the challenges associated with women’s use and ownership of such technologies by reducing the level of effort required to operate the equipment and thereby increasing the level of social acceptance. However, automation will achieve this in a more cost-effective way. For example, the mechanism used in cars for power steering can be adapted for use in the power tiller. This technology would make the power tiller easier to operate for both men and women and make its use more culturally appropriate for women. In comparison, digitalisation would require new equipment, access to smart technologies, and training on how to use the technology.

While digitalisation is essential for women in agriculture, the current context in Africa suggests that it will take time and significant investment to achieve this. In complement to digitalisation efforts, automation technologies and innovations can increase women’s productivity and agricultural yields more immediately and at a lower cost. As we aim to meet the “digitALL” standard – where there is equitable access to digital innovation and technology for all – we must take advantage of low-hanging fruits that will support women in the interim.