There are many benefits and opportunities in working with women in developing countries with mobile phones and mobile-based programs. Some of the benefits include economic gains, increased access to information, greater autonomy and social empowerment.
In the three baseline and product development surveys carried out by the Agri-Fin Mobile Program in Indonesia, Uganda and Zimbabwe between August and November 2012 to determine the ‘pain points’ that smallholder farmers face in accessing finance, agricultural information and inputs – it was noted that mobile phones are emerging as a tool that can empower women.
Evidence from the surveys indicate that women farmers experience a lack of access to resources with less than 2 percent in three countries getting access to finance despite making-up more than 70 percent of the rural labor force. The enormous contribution by women to food production means that ensuring gender mainstreaming in the Agri-Fin Mobile program is a priority.
Agriculture continues to be the main source of rural employment for both women and men in the three countries surveyed. From the survey population sample women make up more than 55 percent of the formal agricultural workforce. The surveys also noted that rural women are more likely to be engaged in self-employment (and thus less likely to be wage earners) than rural men.
Interestingly, the baseline surveys also noted a lack of female-targeted extension services in Zimbabwe and Uganda as a major barrier for women farmers. From the focus group discussions women farmers noted that they are uncomfortable interacting with male extension agents. A lack of female extension workers means that understanding women's perspectives, concerns, and abilities is often missing from agricultural knowledge exchange.
As a result of these challenges, in Indonesia, women farmers are nearly 40 percent less likely to apply for a bank loan than men and only 20 percent own a mobile phone. In Uganda, women tend to save through village savings and lending associations (VSLAs) because they do not qualify to open bank accounts, while in Zimbabwe, women are three times less likely to obtain insurance because they do not understand much about it.
From the baseline surveys it was also apparent that women’s landholdings are smaller than men’s and in almost all the three countries women do not have land or property rights.
With the above challenges it can be noted that if mobile programming is going to address gender issues in agriculture the content and format need to be tailor made to provide information, access, and services that consider women’s differing interests and needs. For instance, women’s double day of family and production responsibilities means they work on average more hours per day than men.
There is no doubt that the impact of mobile phones for women is huge. Mobile phones have the potential to improve access to markets, pricing, and crop information, and increase contact with other points in the knowledge, value, and supply chains. The Food and Agricultural Organization estimates that when women have equal access to productive resources their farm output can increase by 20–30 percent, potentially raising agricultural output by 2.5–4 percent in developing countries. Mobile phones also decrease the time and cost of travel, as well as risks posed to women on long-distance trips. Women value these benefits: in Uganda and Zimbabwe, female farmers were more likely to use mobile phones to access agricultural information than men, even though they used the phones less overall. The additional value of mobile phones is that they allow female farmers to by-pass the middleman entirely and charge higher prices for their goods.