In Zimbabwe, the cost of cell phone usage remains quite high, but women entrepreneurs have benefited from improved access to mobile communication technology.
With about three quarters of a million inhabitants, Bulawayo is the second city of Zimbabwe, located 439 kilometres southwest of the capital Harare. Agriculture is an important additional source of income for the poor residents in the outskirts of the city, especially for the women who mostly run urban agricultural businesses.
In 2009 SNV, Netherlands Development Organisation, started a DFID-funded programme in partnership with World Vision and in cooperation with the farmer–producer association PMRG for the implementation of a poultry, mushroom and rabbitry commercial production and marketing venture in the suburbs of Bulawayo. This programme coincided with a period of comparative political stability in Zimbabwe, which brought prospects for improved economic performance.
ICTs are playing an increasingly important role in this urban agricultural programme because they help to link the production end of the value chain to the markets. The ICT context prior to 2009 can be characterised as poor, with low outreach. However, significant improvements since 2009 have given farmers better opportunities. In Zimbabwe, national mobile phone signal coverage in 2009 was just 37%; in 2012 it is 93%. The average cost per minute was US$0.27; in 2012 it is US$0.09 per minute. The minimum cost of a cell phone dropped from US$250 to US$15, while a SIM card cost US$200 in 2009, as opposed to US$2 in 2012.
When the project began, farmers, especially female farmers, had limited ownership of mobile phones, nor did they know how to use cell phone technology efficiently. This has changed rapidly and generated opportunities. The average ownership among women entrepreneurs in the project increased in two years from 64% to 98%. And the proportion of women in leadership positions in sales and marketing at PMRG increased from 25% to 56% to 12 women in total due to better access to ICTs and improved ICT skills.
Two-thirds of the participating 635 farmers in the project are women. They are involved in mushroom, poultry and rabbitry production as a complementary activity that generates high-value products and additional income for the households. In Zimbabwe, women generally run these small urban agricultural businesses. Men are more involved in contracted work further away in the city centre or in neighbouring countries.
The farmers use the internet in telecentres and increasingly on their mobile phones to find market data and potential buyers. Participants are using the internet six times more a week than in 2009 in their effort to find market-related information. However, it should be noted that acquiring market information is still time consuming. In Zimbabwe, there is no software on the market that uses SMS technology to give farmers tailored market information. Farmers now spend much time trying to find the right information. This is a challenge for women as they have to combine the responsibilities of running a business and a household.
The Zimbabwe Farmers’ Union is doing the lion’s share of the work. It collects market prices from major agricultural output market sources and distributes them at no cost through weekly emails to subscribers. The union’s market information distribution channel is expected to grow in popularity, at which point subscribers will be willing to pay user fees to ensure the service’s sustainability. However, without SMS services that give tailored data services to the farmers at affordable prices, Zimbabwe is still lagging behind in this area, especially compared to other African countries such as Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, and South Africa.
It is up to the private sector and the government to encourage such innovative investments. Zimbabweans have not yet fully embraced the use of technology beyond basic conventional uses. However, as opportunities increase thanks to better infrastructure and mobile phone penetration, and increased use, the special needs and niche markets to solve problems and improve services will soon start to take off in Zimbabwe.
This urban agricultural programme clearly shows that access to mobile communication technology directly improves marketing capabilities. This favours women entrepreneurs in particular. But there are still concerns, the more important of which is cost. The cost of mobile communication in Zimbabwe remains high compared to other countries in the region. This is one impeding factor that prevents women entrepreneurs from fully participating in the market. Data services costs US$35–US$50 for 1 gigabyte compared to an average of US$22 in other regional countries.
If these problems are not solved in the coming years, Zimbabwe will continue to lag behind in the region, but more importantly, the female farmers who have benefited the most from recent improvements will not be able to further develop.