How Technology Can Empower Women in Agriculture

Have you had a fruit or vegetable today? If you are located in sub-Saharan Africa, there’s a 70% chance that a female smallholder farmer produced it. Women in the region play a critical role in many parts of crop production. Yet, they have a harder time accessing resources and productivity-enhancing inputs and services.

Research by UN Women shows that if women had the same access to productive resources as men, female farmers could increase their yield up to 30%. Improved technologies have the potential to not only attract women and youth to agriculture, but also increase yields and reduce post-harvest losses.

Gender-sensitive digital technologies – and the ability to access them – can help women better access upstream inputs and knowledge, facilitating their potential integration into global value chains.

WE4F visited Batlhoka Temo Agricultural Cooperative to learn how the introduction of Virtual Irrigation Academy’s (VIA) chameleon sensor changed their operations. The cooperative is led by a female farmer in South Africa and has exported their citrus to the global juice market since 2019. Batlhoka also works with youth who are in university, providing them with positions and on-the-farm training.

Owner of the cooperative (left) and some of the university students she employs (right). 

The Batlhoka staff lead WE4F and Virtual Irrigation Academy on a tour of their grounds.

What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced?

Climate change has had a big impact on our operations. Weather patterns have changed, and the region has experienced more drought or too much rainfall. In the season before last for example, our crop suffered from hail damage. This resulted in lower quality crop production, which resulted in reduced income as the produce was not fit for export markets.

What was business like before you started using VIA’s technology?

Before the introduction of the chameleon sensor, we were irrigating 21 hectares manually using a hose pipe. We had to water the land in sections, which meant that other parts of the land would suffer. Some parts were overwatered and others were drying up. Our water bill for 21 hectares was about R15000 and we were producing 500 – 700 tons of fruit.

A Virtual Irrigation Academy meter in use (left) while the cooperative’s irrigation system waters some of the trees (right).

How have things changed since you started using VIA’s technology on your farm?

After incorporating the sensor into our irrigation schedules, operations became more efficient. The sensor gave us crucial information about the moisture levels in the soil, meaning that the water saved from crops that don’t need watering can be used for those lacking in water. This efficiency led to us reducing our water bill by a third, from about R15000 to R10000 and we are now producing 1500 -1600 tons of fruit.

In the last few years, we have expanded to 43 hectares and we are paying the same amount of money for water (R15000) to irrigate. So, we have doubled our hectares and are paying the same amount that we would have for 21 hectares. This is possible thanks to VIA’s chameleon sensor.

The daughter of the cooperative owner (left) poses with another employee (right).

The impact on Batlhoka being able to access global markets corresponds with a UNCTAD study of the gender impact of technological upgrading in agriculture. In the study it states that technology can be crucial in supporting women’s participation in higher-value activities in global agrifood chains and in fostering ecologically sustainable agricultural practices essential to cope with the effects of climate change.

Placing users at the center of design is how VIA was able to improve on their technology to make it easy for all farmers to use. Balthoka was part of the initial farms that did this for VIA, helping create a sensor that reflects users’ needs.