The Emerging Digital Economy: A double tragedy for African Women in Agriculture

Women in Sub Saharan Africa play a significant role in agriculture and food production, providing up to 50% of the agricultural labour force, at the same time ensuring family nutrition and food security. Despite their enormous contribution to agriculture and food security, African women still face gender-based inequalities limiting their productivity. It is common knowledge that Sub-Saharan Africa has the widest digital gender gap. Yet, digital solutions have become a source of resilience during the COVID-19 outbreak and as the saying goes it is the “new norm”. It looks like there is no going back post the pandemic, the digital era is here to stay. Everywhere in the world digital solutions and policies are being put in place to help economies recover from the COVID-19 predicament. On the other hand, the health crisis has surfaced the need to critically support the vulnerable populations, among them rural women. Many of whom are disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and are at risk of being adversely impacted by the emerging digital system, owing to the already existing digital gender gap.

Despite the diverse natural resources in the African continent agriculture still forms the backbone of most African economies with an average 15% contribution to the GDP. Given the nature of agriculture in  Sub-Saharan Africa majority of this share comes from smallholder rural farmers, whom agriculture is their major economic activity. Globally women constitute more than 50% of the smallholder farmers and produce approx. 70% of Africa’s food. This leaves one wondering what the digital economy means for smallholder female farmers, who are likely to not own a mobile phone or have access to internet services. To sustainably recover from the COVID-19 crisis, ensuring the inclusion of women in the digital economy is now more important than ever – given their enormous contribution to the African food systems.

In some Sub-Saharan African countries, the partial lockdowns surfaced a landscape where shop owners had to hike prices mostly in remote areas where there is not much government control. The emergence of e-commerce might amplify this scenario, where those who do not have the means trade online will experience unsustainable price fluctuations.  The Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation ACP-EU (CTA), through its VALUE4HER flagship project held a discussion with African women in agribusiness, they all indicated they had to resort to social media, and other online platforms to sell their commodities. In reality, this is a very small proportion of women who have the skills to go digital, come to think of the rural female farmer who does not own a basic feature phone.

The pandemic has clearly indicated that its now the time to close the digital gender gap in  Sub-Saharan Africa , women need to fully benefit from the digital tools as their contribution to African food system cannot be overlooked. At this point we need policies and solutions that explicitly address women’s needs, circumstances to narrow the digital gender gap. Policies also need to address barriers preventing women from accessing and using mobile services. Investment in digital skills will come in handy if women are to fully benefit from the digital economy. Initiatives should holistically address women’s barriers, for instance there is a need for investment in public digital education to enhance women’s digital skills.

The contribution of women to societal development cannot be over emphasized,  studies have demonstrated that when women earn additional income, they spend more of it than men on food, health, clothing, and education for their children. This has positive implications for immediate well-being of their families; long-run human capital formation; and economic growth through improved health, nutrition, and education outcomes. It has never been much more important to address the mobile gender gap to ensure women’s inclusion in the digital economy. Investment in women’s digital skills and access to digital services may help to sustainably recover from COVID 19 crisis and achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals.


Author : Mejury Shiri , MSc . Plant Science  Wageningen University majoring in Post Harvest Loss Management