Can technology shift gender roles on the farm?
The Technolinks+ project in northern Nicaragua is equipping more women producers with the technological tools to help their businesses succeed and thrive while promoting greater gender equality within farming families. Through the use of technology, producers can improve productivity, increase the quality of their produce, and enhance their profit margins.
There is a visible gap between women and men farmers when it comes to land, pay, family expectations and access to markets. Women farmers most often have small and less productive plots of land, are often engaged in a greater share of unpaid family farm work, are inhibited from learning improved farming methods, and experience barriers in accessing markets. They also have fewer opportunities to access existing credit and financial products because their activities are often considered as concerning family sustenance or are in sectors deemed to be of low potential for adding value.
Such barriers constrain and limit women's mobility as economic actors, and are intensified by gender, cultural, and social norms that characterize women as ‘helpers’ to their spouses and not as active income generators. The perpetuation of these norms results in women solely engaging in home-based entrepreneurial activities that are often highly competitive and of limited scale and profitability. This limits the job opportunities for women with their only option being to enter the labour force. If a woman does not want to work in labour, she must start her own micro-enterprises with little resources and support.
Technolinks+ is employing the use of smart incentives to encourage technology investment amongst targeted women farmers and enterprise clients. One of these incentives are the electronic vouchers directed at smallholder farmers. The electronic voucher (or e-voucher) system uses SMS messaging over mobile phone networks to issue, communicate, and redeem the vouchers. The project predetermined which branded technologies were eligible for introductory purchase price discounts, focusing on “clean and inclusive” technologies such irrigation systems, biodigesters, solar dryers, among others.
To accelerate the uptake of technology by women farmers, the project analysed several crops to determine which crops could benefit from the increased use of technology and could be made more sustainable and easily accessible by women. The project also analysed which value chains had significant potential for women’s engagement, leadership, and value capture. The project has also ensured through public engagement activities and partnerships with local technology suppliers, that women and men farmers can both be made aware of the benefits of technology application.
In part, this has been accomplished through positive gender behaviour change communication activities that address the access barriers, and negative gender and social norms that limit women’s ability to purchase and use productive technology. Outreach is also targeted to ensure women’s and men’s equal participation in all technology-related events where women’s roles as agricultural producers, and men’s roles as champions of gender equality, are highlighted and celebrated.
The results to date are promising. Regarding crop disaggregation, the project found that vegetable farmers are using the most technology (85%), followed by coffee farmers (76%) and fruit producers (71%). Women typically dominate the horticulture space as they dedicate a portion of the family farm to grow vegetables, as this is a short-term crop that can provide liquidity and food security for the family. According to women producers consulted by the project, COVID-19 is causing downward economic pressure on families, thus having a safety net for food stuffs can help to buffer these impacts. Likewise, the analysis found that vegetable sales generate the highest income with a yearly average of over $17,500 USD (per producer, followed by coffee, which generates an average income of over $ 2,000 USD).
It is not surprising that the most popular technology is an irrigation system (as almost 50% of all e-voucher redemptions) followed by improved seeds (35%) and coffee pulpers (27%). So far, MEDA has delivered 497 e-vouchers to 297 women and 200 men farmers to purchase productive technologies. Based on project analysis of producer needs for access to finance, MEDA designed a financial product that is targeted to women to encourage them to purchase equipment and other technologies that help increase both their productivity and promotes their ownership of key productive assets. Efficient technology can also help to save women producers time and labour, which are at a premium according to the project’s gender studies, as women within farming families work longer hours on average on both domestic and farming tasks comparatively with men.
Women who purchase irrigation systems through Technolinks+ to increase the productivity of their farms are not only increasing their incomes, but are also better able to pursue their own personal and economic empowerment as producers while contributing to their family well-being. By providing women producers with greater opportunities to access affordable and sustainable technology, while promoting dialogue on gender equality and women’s crucial role in agricultural production, the Technolinks+ project is making visible and tangible women’s contributions and the importance of balancing power and gender roles within the economy to the benefit of Nicaraguan farming families.