JOHANNESBURG - To assist in the transformation of South Africa’s smallholder agricultural segment and create a more inclusive agricultural economy for women, the Vodacom Foundation launched the Women Farmers Programme in August last year. The programme, in partnership with the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women and South African Women in Farming (SAWIF), introduces women farmers, especially those from underprivileged backgrounds, to technology as an effective tool in agricultural business. A year later, the programme has gone from strength to strength.
Since the successful pilot of the programme in Limpopo in 2018, Vodacom has invested over R6.3 million in digital literacy training, and extended the programme to four more provinces, including Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal, Free State and North West. Vodacom has more than doubled the number of women farmers trained through the programme. Currently, more than 1 300 women farmers from rural areas have been trained in digital literacy, up from 600 from last August. Eleven field workers are now proficient in Vodacom’s Connected Farmer app, which connects small-scale farmers across the agricultural value chain to enterprises and potential suppliers looking to source agricultural goods, such as crops and livestock. Between February and March this year, more than 250 farms registered with profiles on the app.
According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, women, on average, comprise 43% of the agricultural labour force in developing countries, yet they receive only a fraction of the resources, agricultural training and information compared to men. Further research by the World Economic Forum shows that by empowering and investing in rural women, they would increase the yields of farms by 20%-30% and reduce hunger by up to 17%.
As agriculture is a knowledge-intensive field with new technologies emerging every day, from drones to climate-smart agriculture, women farmers need to develop the skills to take advantage of the economic benefits offered by the Digital Revolution and participate equally in the agricultural value chain.
“In South Africa, primary agriculture is an important sector of our economy, as it remains a significant provider of employment, particularly for women in rural areas. But without access to technological knowledge and resources, these women are unable to reach their full potential and make a vital contribution to increasing productivity and decreasing poverty in our country,” says Takalani Netshitenzhe, External Affairs Director for Vodacom South Africa. “Through Vodacom’s participation and investment in the Women Farmers Programme, we hope to equip women farmers with the necessary skills to stake their claim equally in the agriculture sector, and ensure they are not left behind in the digital era.”
The first phase of the programme trains women farmers in digital literacy so that they are equipped with digital skills to participate in the mainstream economy. In the second phase, Vodacom is going to digitise SAWIF’s database of women farmers, the third phase is for the women farmers to register on Vodacom’s Connected Farmer app, which provides live, real-time information on what farmers are producing in which regions. The app, developed by Vodacom’s subsidiary Mezannine, also helps to ensure that small-scale women farmers participating in the programme have access to input and output markets – a key requirement for the transformation of smallholder farmers to commercial production – and are able to meet the conditions of retailers. Vodacom is currently, engaging with Mezannine to scale up the functionalities of the app to include the fourth phase, which is to integrate financial services and enterprise business offerings to support these rising women entrepreneurs.
A farmer can use any mobile device on any network to access the Connected Farmer’s platform and, through SMS, receive valuable information, including weather forecasts and market prices. In addition, the agribusiness and even third-party providers can issue vouchers to the farmers, who can exchange the SMS-based vouchers at participating dealers for farming requirements, such as seeds, fertiliser and access to mechanisation.
Even though training was suspended during the lockdown period, women farmers were able to continue using the Connected Farmer app and put their new technical knowledge to use to remain economically active throughout the crisis. Administrators of the app could direct buyers to profiled farms offering desired produce, and farmers could keep up to date with the latest industry developments. Now that lockdown restrictions have eased, the programme can resume, but with strict protocols around social distancing and hygiene, which may mean a reduction in the number of women farmers who can be trained.
“Moving forward, the programme hopes to continue to meet the needs of women farmers so that they are able to contribute successfully and equally to the agriculture economy. With the full suite of services, as well as the knowledge and skills learnt through the training, women farmers can be empowered to reap the benefits of technology,” concluded Netshitenzhe.