Two projects, one in Kenya and one in Burkina Faso, show that female farmers have better access to ICTs and are using them to improve their livelihoods. However, there is still a gender digital divide, and some profound problems are preventing women from benefiting from ICTs.
Margaret Wanjiku Mwangi has been a regular user of the Ng’arua Maarifa ICT Centre in the rural county of Laikipia in Kenya since it was inaugurated seven years ago. A farmer, she has acquired computer skills free of charge and regularly borrows books and magazines to discover new ideas to improve yield productivity. For example, she learnt how to preserve various vegetable seeds for planting to enhance food security. It was also at this rural ICT Centre, an initiative of the Arid Lands Information Network (ALIN), that she came up with the idea of making a kitchen garden to grow vegetables in the dry season, and to make fruit juices at home to sell at special occasions and social gatherings.
Mwangi has also attended market access trainings at the ICT Centre, where she has learnt to use her mobile phone and the internet to check market prices. ‘Whenever my crops are ready,’ she says, ‘I use my mobile phone to check market prices in major towns so that I can learn about the current market situation. I share the information with neighbours, and we are no longer exploited by middle men.’
Rural women in Africa, like Margaret Wanjiku Mwangi, are getting better access to ICTs and increasingly making use of it. However, a huge part of the rural female population is still excluded. Mwangi sees this in her surroundings. ‘I know women who are afraid to come to the Maarifa Centre to ask questions and use its services,’ she says. Their hesitancy can be explained by several factors, such as illiteracy, being preoccupied with domestic chores, techno-phobia and uncooperative husbands.
So economic and capacity restrictions are not the only matters affecting women’s access to ICTs. Especially in rural areas, access to ICTs is not equal for men and women. Depending on the social status of a family, electronic gadgets are generally the preserve of men. When a family or a person in a family owns a mobile phone or another electronic gadget, it is always the male who controls its access and use. Women therefore face the challenge of having to rely on men to access ICT equipment.
Bett Kipsang’, field officer at the Ng’arua Maarifa Centre, witnesses the daily progress of women using ICTs, but also sees how difficult it is to reach female farmers who still are lagging behind in terms of ICT development. He personally has witnessed a case where one woman came to the Maarifa Centre to process a Personal Identification Number (PIN), which is required by the government for tax collection. The woman was accompanied by her husband, and Kipsang’ could hear him nagging that she had not informed him of ‘what she was doing on the computer’. The woman was so distressed she had to leave before her PIN certificate could be processed. She came back alone the next day to collect her PIN. ‘That was a typical example of the predicament facing women in accessing ICT services, especially when their husbands are not enlightened and fear being outsmarted by women,’ Kipsang’ says.
Cases like this strengthen Kipsang' to go ahead with projects and services that will help women access ICTs. The Ng’arua Maarifa Centre organises training sessions and workshops to make sure that women are equally represented. ‘We try to sensitize men to the issue so they will allow women to become proactive in exploring the use of ICTs to solve their problems,’ Kipsang’ says. ‘We have initiated training sessions targeting all the community members and specifically women. During these sessions, we introduce them to initiatives about online marketing skills, for example, where we train farmers to check market prices from a web-based portal using the internet and mobile phones.’
The portal is called Sokopepe, which loosely translated into Swahili means ‘online market’ ( www.sokopepe.co.ke). It was developed by ALIN, for use by local farmers to access market information via the Short Message Service (SMS). The internet portal has been customised to receive SMS and give feedback on the prices of commodities as inquired by the farmers and buyers. The initiative enables farmers to upload their offers online and receive market information from different market centres in order to make informed decisions on where to sell their produce. This marketing system has helped rural women find prices and also discover the location of prospective buyers. ‘A farmer in the rural areas of Sipili,’ Kipsang’ explains, ‘can be connected to a customer 300 miles away in the lavish capital city of Nairobi. This has enabled rural women to make use of ICT services to market their produce.’
It is not easy, however, to get women to join the training sessions and workshops so they can learn how to use the technology. The Maarifa Centre has learnt over the years that it is easier to reach women by organising field days than by organising workshops at the centre itself, as women are often confined to domestic chores in homes.
The Maarifa Centre therefore organises monthly field days and outreach activities targeting women in remote villages. The activities include exhibitions and demonstrations of best practices in farming, water harvesting and other relevant farming activities, like how to use ICTs. After these visits, women are more likely to take the step of visiting the centre.
Different approaches are needed to get women to use ICTs. Raising awareness is important to make women realize what the benefits of using ICTs are. Most of the women are either illiterate or semi-literate, though, which makes it difficult for them to use ICTs in the first place, and all more so when services are offered in foreign languages like English. The Maarifa Centre uses the literate members of the women’s groups to read and explain the information to the others during meetings.
Videos repackaged in local languages are screened from projectors and iPods introduce new ideas in farming methods, marketing skills and disease control measures. ‘The difference in the approach to rural women is the ‘‘friendliness’’ and unsophistication of the ICT equipment to be used by women,’ says Kipsang’. And it has helped to increase the number of women to make use of the services of the centre. On average 55 people visit the Maarifa Centre on daily basis. Now about 30% of the visitors are women.
The Songtaaba Women’s Association, an organisation that manufactures shea butter skincare products in Burkina Faso, uses the same unsophisticated approach to teach rural women how to use ICTs in the domestic shea butter sector. The production of shea butter has been a women-driven activity in Burkina Faso for decades. It is produced with the shea fruit that grows wild in the West African savannah. However, ICTs were introduced in 2005 and have changed the lives of shea butter producers ever since, says Songtaaba’s manager Noelie Marceline Ouedraogo. ‘We literally dismantled a computer with the help of a trainer to show how it works and what is inside. This is important to give women more confidence to use computers and to learn about computer maintenance and data processing.’
Songtaaba produces two types of butter: the traditional one, Karipur, and the organic one, Karibio. It also makes shea butter soap and aromatic spices, another traditional activity of women in Burkina Faso. The association provides more than 3,100 women in 11 villages with jobs, and incomes have risen dramatically after the introduction of ICTs. The development of their own website helped tremendously as well, as it enabled them to improve their marketing and sales skills. The women now update and manage the website and incoming emails themselves. The website was important to show product information and prices to a broad audience and potential buyers of Songtaaba’s products. Products can be ordered by sending an email, so communication with international customers , such as distributors in Canada and France for the North American and European markets, has become much more efficient and reliable. The result was that within two years after implementing ICTs, orders went up by almost 70% and have continued rising ever since.
The Songtaaba Women’s Association invested in telecentres in the villages where it operates. The telecentres are managed by rural women trained by Songtaaba, Ouedraogo explains. ‘In these centres, women can access telephones, computers and the internet for business purposes, and access information about fairs and regional and international meetings to promote shea butter products,’ says Ouedraogo.
The success of the shea butter group does not only rely on improved marketing and visibility on the internet, but also on the use of cell phones for internal communication. Women in each village share a cell phone to communicate with the head office in the capital, Ouagadougou. Another important ICT tool the women use is GPS to locate organic shea kernels, sesame seeds and groundnut. ‘To ensure we meet the standards for organic certification we have to map exactly which trees we use,’ says Ouedraogo. ‘Therefore, the women have learnt to position and code shea trees by making use of GPS systems on the cell phone and record the data.’ This guarantees a better price and income for the women.
Projects like the Songtaaba Association and the Ng’arua Maarifa Centre have been effective vehicles for helping women acquire ICT literacy skills, numeracy skills and various information resources to help them start and build their own businesses, secure their livelihoods, and become socially and politically active. However, Kipsang’ and Ouedraogo both agree that it is also up to software developers and the ICT sector, together with innovators and investors, to be more aware of women’s special ICT interests and needs. ‘If they focus more on the women and their special needs, for example to assist them in home economics, home management, market access and information on health, nutrition and care, women will be more enthusiastic when it comes to using ICTs,’ Kipsang’ says. ‘Women shoulder a chunk of family responsibilities, so if ICT services were made affordable they would use ICTs to solve most of their daily challenges.’
Bett Kipsang’ is field officer for the Arid Lands Information Network (ALIN) at the Ng’arua Maarifa Centre in the Laikipia County in Kenya.
Noelie Marceline Ouedraogo is founder and head coordinator of the Songtaaba Association.
The N’garua Maarifa Centre runs two blogs: http://ngaruamaarifa.blogspot.nl/ and http://laikipiaruralvoices.blogspot.nl/, the latter provides a platform for citizen journalism trainees to publish their stories.
N’garua Maarifa Centre is one of the 12 ICT centres established by the regional NGO Arid Lands Information Network (ALIN) – www.alin.net
Official website of the Songtaaba Association – www.songtaaba.net/
Video (French) about the work of Songtaaba Association
Linking rural radio to female farmers
Radio plays a significant role in the transfer of information in African countries because the spoken word can be understood in areas where literacy rates are low. The growth of rural radio stations over the past few decades reflects the increased investment in these information technologies. Particularly in rural areas in sub-Saharan Africa, radio is often the only mass medium available, and most households have access to a receiver. However, a study in Benin shows that although rice processors are mostly women, the majority who listen to rural radio agricultural news broadcasting are men rice processors. It also concluded that about 67% of the women rice processors had their own radio set, compared to 87% of the men. The results of this study, Linking farmers’ access to rural radio, gender and livelihoods, were presented during the third IAALD Africa Chapter Conference in May 2012 on e-Agriculture. According to the researchers Zossou et al. (2012), this bias between women and men can be explained by the fact that men own more radios than women. Moreover, women work more in rural areas than men. In addition to farming activities, women manage many domestic activities. The timing of the broadcasts during the day or early evening is poor, especially for the women, as they are busy working during those hours.