Agriculture feeds the world, and technology connects the world. So why are we struggling to link the two? Financial inclusion is the bridge that connects the two, and technology serves as powerful means to bring women in developing countries into the fold of agribusiness.
Approximately two billion people lack access to formal financial institutions. This missing link includes a lack of access to services like credit, savings, insurance, and money transfers. In developing countries, it’s often more difficult to open a bank account due to stricter regulations and institutional requirements. It’s even more difficult for women, as they face many more barriers than men to access financial services, including technological, policy, legal, educational, and cultural barriers.
Access to finance, however, has great potential to act as the catalyst for access to other productive resources on the way to achieving the SDGs, and mobile technologies have proven successful in facilitating access to financial services. Thus, using financial inclusion to empower women through mobile technologies can have positive outcomes for poverty and hunger reduction on a global scale.
It is important to think of access to financial services in relation to the agriculture sector, given that agriculture not only drives economic development in developing countries, but is central to food security, the prevention of hunger, malnutrition, and poverty. Despite being a building block to global development, however, agriculture faces one of the largest hurdles in its gender gap. More often than not, women in agricultural-dependent households have limited access to a variety of resources, resulting in fewer outputs than their male counterparts. Most traditional female contributions in the home are not considered economically active employment but are essential to the well-being of rural households. These obstacles marginalize women from the economic system and perpetuate the economic gender gap. Despite this situation, women comprise on average 43% of the agricultural labor force in developing countries. Closing the economic gender gap, particularly in access to resources and adequate compensation, has the potential to lead to an increase in productivity, reduction of poverty and the promotion of national economic growth through increased yields by 20–30%6. This could ultimately raise total output in developing countries by 2.5-4% (related to SDG 2.3), which could contribute to SDG target 2.1 in reducing global hunger levels by 12–17%.
Economic progress of this magnitude is possible through the adoption of gender-oriented social and legal mechanisms that would lead to financial inclusion and access to resources including capital, land ownership, and agricultural technology. With access to these resources and financial tools, women – who are more likely to economically reinvest their resources on a familial level – are instrumental to change.
Whereas increased access to financial resources fosters increased labor productivity, the gendered lack thereof implies minimal support for entrepreneurship, asset accumulation, and wealth creation. For example, agricultural labor productivity is on average 44% lower on female-headed plots than on those managed by male heads, and 29% of this gap can be explained by differences in credit access.
One way to improve access to finance is to leverage the exponential growth of mobile phone use generally and support women’s access to mobile phones in particular. Digital technology helps boost financial inclusion, and mobile phones have proven particularly successful. Of the people without access to financial institutions, 1.1 billion have mobile phones. Furthermore, the cell phone penetration rate is increasing quickly in developing countries. In Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, GSMA estimates the number of mobile phone subscribers will reach 638 million by 2025, representing a significant 43% increase from 2017. Although women still constitute the larger share of the ‘unconnected’ population, implying uneven gendered access to mobile phones, research in Uganda shows women’s use of mobile phones is also increasing within farm households, resulting in positive outcomes for productivity and equity.
One such example of this linkage is M-PESA, the SMS-based mobile banking system application initiated in Kenya in 2007, which presents a convincing case in bridging the gap between financial services and women. M-PESA has proven to be an important contributor in Kenya on the way to reaching several SDGs. A study on the impacts of M-PESA on poverty and gender reveals that by providing a safe and accessible platform to manage transactions and accounts, it has lifted a significant 2% of the total Kenyan households out of poverty (SDG 1.1 and 1.2) and increased women’s financial resilience and savings by facilitating access to banking systems (SDG 8.10 and 5.4, 5.5). Mobile technology has also led to the creation of agricultural knowledge sharing – one such digital application is DigiFarm, which offers smallholder farmers access to the latest information in farming technology in the form of tutorials specific to their crop and location, it also provides access to markets and insurance.
The key to achieving these SDG targets and closing the gender gap is to link technology to agriculture and connect women with greater resources. This can be achieved by leveraging increased mobile phone use and scaling up successful mobile financial tools that serve as catalysts for women’s access to other productive and agriculture-related resources. One pathway to facilitate this transformation would be implementation of a national policy stipulating universal access to financial services and mobile technology specifically through a gender lens as well as increased funding by means of government subsidies and donor support. Though not a magic wand to quickly resolve gendered access to resources, mobile technologies do facilitate women’s exposure to financial services and are critical to reducing global rates of poverty and hunger.
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