The Gender, Agriculture and Rural Development in the Information Society initiative was established in 2002 to support projects aimed at leveraging ICTs to enhance farmer knowledge and productivity. But did the programme help to close the gender and urban-rural gap in ICT access? Or is there a need for the scheme to be rolled out again?
This article reflects back to 17 years ago, when CTA held its 5th observatory meeting in September, 2002. At the ‘Gender and Agriculture in the Information Society’ observatory, ACP experts were joined by staff from the International Development Research Centre in Canada and two international organisations based in the Netherlands; the International Institute of Communication and Development and the International Service for National Agricultural Research. Participants discussed how to move forward to address gender issues related to ICTs in agriculture and rural development. It was apparent that more direct action was needed from gender initiatives, such as ICT training, women’s leadership in agricultural technology policy, and relevant content development and testing in rural communities.
To the interdependent end goals of reducing poverty, empowering women and ensuring gender equality in agricultural systems and rural areas, ICTs provide a very powerful means of accessing information, and creating and mobilising knowledge to strengthen financial and human capacity, and a security of food and wellbeing. However, the development of ICT infrastructure is often concentrated in urban centres which excludes a large rural population – mostly women and youths, and limits their ability to fully and actively participate in, and benefit from, the information society. It’s against this back-drop that the Gender, Agriculture and Rural Development in the Information Society (GenARDIS) was initiated by the participants of the observatory meeting.
The GenARDIS programme and projects
From 2002-2010, GenARDIS released three rounds of small funds of between €2,000 and €7,000, with a total programme investment of €200,000, for 21 wide-ranging projects (Odame, 2010). Given these relatively modest seed grants, expectations were kept in check, but it was anticipated that the funding would make a significant difference for those groups looking to set up radio programmes, acquire computers and handheld devices, cover the costs of cellular service, conduct hands-on training and start up new agri-businesses.
The beneficiary projects aimed at leveraging the use of ICTs – both traditional and modern – to enhance farmers’ knowledge and information, promote productivity and enhance smallholder revenues, amongst other goals. For instance, the Toro Development Network (TORODev) in Uganda used a combination of information dissemination channels to reach out to farmers, such as providing access to timely agricultural information, finance and credit facilities, as well as weekly radio talk shows in two districts in Western Uganda.
The Women of Uganda Network (WOUGNET), with the support of CTA, has been a long-standing implementing partner of the GenARDIS project, even though it was not amongst the grantees supported under the scheme. WOUGNET sought to increase women farmers’ access to agricultural information and knowledge using multi-channelled ICT-enabled platforms, such as radio talk shows and audio documentaries, web-based platforms, smartphone applications, as well as through face-to-face discussions. Partnerships were initiated with community radios to air weekly agricultural programmes in local languages, coupled with the establishment of a multi-dimensional information centre to provide access to ICTs and agricultural information.
A CTA impact study (2010) using the capacity-centred impact pathway analysis – a framework for evaluating impact using participatory approaches – observed that the CTA-supported GenARDIS project with WOUGNET led to positive contributions in the social, economic, wealth and political domains of beneficiary groups in northern Uganda.
Today, TORODev and WOUGNET continue to work on gender-related issues and ICT4Ag initiatives. For instance, WOUGNET over the years has deepened its partnership with Makerere University College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, the College of Computing and Information Sciences, the National Agricultural Research Organisation, and the Regional University Forum for Capacity Building in Agriculture, among others, to implement community action-oriented research projects that promote testing and deployment of agricultural technologies to smallholder farmers aided by the use of digital technologies.
Gender inequality and ICTs
There is an on-going need to ensure the evolving knowledge-base and digital tools used in agriculture and rural communities are attentive and responsive to gender issues. Conclusions of the recent CTA/Dalberg report, Digitalisation of African Agriculture Report 2018-2019, support this notion, and confirm that despite efforts of some companies and donor agencies, little progress has been made on gender equity in the D4Ag sector: “In sub-Saharan Africa, where 40–50% of smallholder farmers are women, only 25% are registered users of D4Ag solutions. Companies that explicitly target female farmers and make this an important measure of their success tend to do better. Overall, the data suggest that companies are not sufficiently prioritising gender as part of their product design, marketing and user engagement efforts.”
At the 2002 observatory meeting, ICT and gender expert, Nancy Hafkin, offered a definition of gender bias in ICT, noting that it is likely happening at all levels – from local to national and international settings. First, there are still fewer women than men in science and technology disciplines, as well as fewer women leaders in agricultural organisations, research and policymaking. Second, there are attitudes that information technology and data-intensive digital tools used in agriculture are ‘not for women’, or at least there is little recognition that some social groups have suffered disproportionately from a lack of digital literacy resulting from lower access to resources and capacity building. Finally, there are many cultural aspects limiting women’s access to information ‘spaces’, including public telecentres (popular at the time). The virtual information spaces that we find in D4Ag today, such as the Internet of Things, are scarcely different. And while the online, mobile world has made video, audio (radio) and many channels of communication possible, they are not always secure or free from dominant social constructions of gender and cultural attitudes about women and youth. Thus, there remains a need for D4Ag spaces to enable all users/producers of data and media to feel respect for who they are, what they know and what they are doing.
For rural areas to benefit from ICTs, policy recommendations must include the deployment of network infrastructures beyond urban areas; a reduction in the cost of broadband connectivity to ensure affordable internet; training and capacity building for local communities on the benefits of ICTs; and the provision of content in local languages. It is important to underscore how government commitments and changes in policy landscapes enable access to ICTs for rural development.
What we might wonder now is if there is a need for another round of GenARDIS today, and if so, whom should it target? Is the methodology developed 20 years ago robust enough for today’s challenges? Perhaps, but we must remember to start with ICT users. There are reasons why only 25% of D4Ag solutions have registered women users. When ICTs are accessible, affordable and able to be put to effective use, women will gain skills and innovate, despite a persistent gender divide in the ICT sector (Tandon, 2012).