LINKAGE Q1 (2021) - Choose To Challenge
by Nesha Beharry-Borg (PhD)
Director of Centrascape
Trinidad and Tobago’s has a rich agricultural history. In the midst of a pandemic, local agriculture has once again proven to be vital, faced with the reality of closed borders and bottle-necked trade routes. Women have been a fundamental part of the agricultural sector, participating in all roles from planting seeds to packaging harvests. As we look to the future in a new reality, we ask: what investments and policies in technology can assist women in agriculture for their own benefit and that of their community in a post-pandemic world?
According to The Latin America and Caribbean Advantage report, Latin America and the Caribbean is home to around 658 million people, of whom around 18% live in rural areas. Women make up approximately half the rural population, of which indigenous women comprise 20%. Furthermore, 17% of the total population are young people, of whom 20% (21 million) live in rural areas (IFAD). These figures show that despite increasing urbanisation, rural communities remain significant, especially since they typically account for the majority of agricultural production and have the young, active workforce needed to drive a new agricultural revolution. However, equally for both men and women, agricultural entrepreneurs need to be empowered to meet the challenges of modern agriculture. Increasingly, technology resourcing and adoption are proving central in realising the available opportunities in this sector.
Back in 2020, Abigail Daniel, the Senior Programme Coordinator of Tobago’s Unemployment Relief Programme (URP)’s agricultural section, spoke to the Trinidad Newsday on the positive effects women experienced being part of the programme. While the initiative focuses on teaching women to grow their own food in small batches, it also highlights the importance of supporting the growth of both technical knowledge and technological access needed for success.
Considering the rural setting many of the local agricultural population work in, women are inherently disadvantaged since they may lack access to financing to purchase land and fund materials, transportation, training and technology (water, electricity, and digital services) even before they begin considering a career in agricultural production. Some of these limitations require deep structural change. For example, in developing countries, only 10-20% of landholders are women, and in some parts of the world, women still cannot legally own or control land. However, some existing barriers that limit women’s entry in the sector can be overcome through access to digital technology.
At the simplest level, digital technology and online services can help women navigate the agriculture processes, providing guidance on seeding and harvesting, pest control and other core agricultural activities. A reliable internet service and access to computers also opens myriad learning avenues for women farmers, through online training courses on emerging technologies, important funding opportunities, or trends in agriculture that would help them stay abreast of market needs and innovations.
One such initiative is Compete Caribbean’s Regional Agri-Tech Initiative, where women can receive technical assistance and grant funding for using technology to improve productivity. Online access also allows women farmers to search for information related to the business of agriculture, including financial management, access to loans or funding, and special calls by the government that may directly benefit them. Beyond information consumption, digital access also enables online access to services that are harder to access in a rural environment such as making payments for goods, loan or funding applications, and mobile banking.
Enabling a digital transformation for women in agriculture requires both investment and training. In most cases, delivery of information and services will be via mobile phones. Therefore, investment in infrastructure for steady Wi-Fi or cellular data is a prerequisite to achieving this transformation. Equally, training of users will be key to attaining a return on this investment through technology adoption.
This investment in technology and training has been shown to pay off. Studies by the World Bank show that, “Providing women equal access to services and assets and enhancing their agency and opportunities in the agricultural sector could increase agricultural production in developing countries by about 2.5-4%, and potentially reduce the number of hungry people by 12-17%.”
A good example of how to empower women farmers through technology is through the Flagship Programme on Women’s Empowerment through Climate Smart Agriculture from UN Women. An outcome of this programme is the ‘Buy from Women Platform’. The main goal of the programme is to help women farmers digitise their business, which enables them to market themselves more effectively while raising their credit rating. This leads to access to financing and connects them with other farmers and suppliers to improve their network.
The gender gap that once prevented women from either widening their current agribusiness or from even considering getting involved in the arena, has been shortened of late, with technology playing an important role.
At the CARICOM ICT and Innovation in Agriculture segment of the 12th Regional Agricultural Planners’ Forum session back in 2019, Ms. Keithlin Caroo, head of St. Lucian NGO ‘Helen’s Daughters’, spoke on gender mainstreaming in agriculture. Ms. Caroo said some of the challenges she faced came from stereotyping, not being taken seriously, financial setbacks, and access to information. The organisation uses technology in various aspects of agriculture, including smart soil sensors. This shows that while systemic challenges remain, technology can help make progress towards a more level playing field for women.
In Trinidad and Tobago, recent upgrades in internet and data services provide more stable networks for mobile users in general. This has led to women farmers using social media to market their e-commerce agribusiness to much success. A clear example is an uptick in home-delivery of fruit and vegetables by various growers during the pandemic. Women entrepreneurs constitute a significant part of this market, with many using WhatsApp to coordinate deliveries and grow their customer base. These women-led businesses can feed into local e-commerce platforms like D Market Movers, which provide opportunities for online sales through new markets that traditionally would be out of their reach.
Also, in Trinidad and Tobago, women-led businesses like Greenage Farms provide retail-ready options for implementing vertical growing and hydroponic systems. Further afield, Eeden Farms in The Bahamas, another woman-led agribusiness, shows how technology can be used to promote containerised hydroponic farming, and the incorporation of an e-commerce function into their business model. The next step in the Caribbean will be to learn and implement the new innovations in e-commerce for agriculture that is taking place globally. For example, in China and Africa, there are marketplaces dedicated to all types of agribusinesses, such as those in livestock, crop production, and horticulture.
While these are good examples of how technology can assist women, for the agricultural sector in the Caribbean to be truly competitive, women farmers also need to have access to land, infrastructure, services, and an export orientation. Indeed, while there is evidence to support the importance of empowering women in agriculture, there remains insufficient information and support for women farmers to fully realise their potential. Many of the development agencies in the Caribbean, such as the IDB, IICA, FAO and UNDP, are poised to assist women in the agriculture industry and already support women-led businesses and community-based organisations.
While support from international and regional development agencies is important and welcome, to be truly sustainable, women need support from local governmental agencies that implement the design of policy implementation and capacity building, as well as provide the opportunities for institutional changes. Trinidad and Tobago already has agencies that provide this support, such as the Ministry of Trade and the Ministry of Agriculture through their partner agencies like ExportTT and InvestTT. At the regional level, the Caribbean Export Development Agency, CARIFORUM and the University of the West Indies also provide avenues for assistance. These agencies are an important part of the ecosystem of accelerators that supports technological innovations in agriculture. Working with these organisations remains key to the women-led private sector SMEs so that they can benefit from the research, technology transfer, and training opportunities.
A digital transformation in agriculture supported by government-led policy will help close the gender gap. As food security concerns move to the forefront of national policy, these are concerns that the country and region can ill afford to ignore. Women must play a part in the next generation of agricultural entrepreneurship if the region and country are to meet these challenges and maximise their opportunities in our new reality.
Nesha Beharry-Borg (PhD) is the Director of Centrascape, a Trinidadian company with over 25 years' experience in creating landscape and garden designs for commercial and residential clients.
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