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Ecofarmer: Technology playing a powerful role in empowering women

Farm

Econet’s innovation, Ecofarmer, a mobile-based insurance services programme epitomises the important role that technology can play in achieving gender equality.

Ecofarmer is a mobile technology solution, which delivers weather-based insurance, real-time, location-based weather information and farming tips via cellphone, that is helping producers to combat the effects of climate change.

Statistics show that Zimbabwe is largely driven by an agrarian economy, with more than 80% of rural households depending on agriculture for their livelihoods.

The country’s one rainfall season per year is critical for more than 70% of smallholders who depend on it. But rainfall patterns have become more erratic, uncertain and unpredictable, placing a strain on smallholder production systems. Smallholder farmers have limited access to existing adaptation solutions or weather information that could help them cope with acute weather patterns and climate change, which in turn affects food security, nutrition and household incomes.

Ecofarmer is a mobile technology solution, which delivers weather-based insurance, real-time, location-based weather information and farming tips through cellular phones, which is helping producers to combat the effects of climate change.

It has been noted that two particular challenges currently prevent farmers from taking advantage of climate-smart agriculture solutions – limited uptake of available agricultural insurance services to mitigate against shocks, and poor access to real-time weather information to enable timely and effective decision-making.

In 2013, the ILO Country Office for Zimbabwe and Namibia, cognisant of the importance of skills enhancement as a youth empowerment tool, embarked on Skills for Youth Employment and Rural Development programme which trained more than 9000 youth across 9 provinces. The programme was meant to create employment for young people in the rural areas of the country. It created employment for beneficiaries but also created employers out of the youth, who are creating work for others. The programme worked through the Training for Rural Economic Empowerment (TREE) in the rural communities, an ILO methodology that identifies and leverages on local economic opportunities. Mutoko is one of the over 30 districts that benefited from the programme.

In 2013, the government of Zimbabwe declared the methodology of the programme to be a National Framework to economic empowerment.

One of the beneficiaries of the project in the Chitora area of Mutoko South Constituency, Josephine Muchena said the ILO programme had gone a long way in uplifting her livelihood.

“I want to thank ILO for bringing this project to this area. We were first trained on growing sweet potatoes and beans. Armed with new skills, we were able to apply for loans, which we successfully got from MicroKing. We used the loan to buy inputs and pay farm labourers,” Muchena said.

During a visit to assess the impact of the ILO project in Mutoko, Spiked Online Media found out that Muchena had planted one and half hectares of sweet potatoes and a hectare of groundnuts. She was expecting to harvest in excess of over two hundred 50kg bags of the sweet potatoes. A 50kg bag of sweet potatoes fills approximately two-and-a-half 20 litre buckets with each costing as much as USD8 at Mbare Musika vegetable market in Harare.

With over 400 buckets of sweet potatoes expected, Muchena will realise in excess of $3000, if her product will be marketed well. The Mutoko TREE programme was successful with beneficiaries like Muchena not just by improving their own lives, but the lives of their families, as well as their communities.

Muchena employs locals to help her cultivate the fields and apply fertilisers and insecticides. For three times a month, she employs a group of seven labourers whom she pays $4 a day for assisting her with work.

Crops grown under the programme also include tomatoes, butternuts and maize – horticultural products, which are in high demand in Harare. Apart from improving their income, beneficiaries and communities also have had their nutrition improved.

Muchena also paid tribute to the contribution of the technology-enhanced mobile insurance system brought about by Ecofarmer,

“Through the mobile phone, we get up-to-date-information on which days we should expect to receive rainfall or stretches of dry spells. Thanks to technology, our farming is made easier and successful. The good thing is that the information is accessible even to some farmers without smart phones,” she said.

To date, limited numbers of smallholder farmers have taken up weather-based insurance (WBI) due to lack of awareness, understanding and affordability, poor commercial sustainability due to the low number of clients, and the lack of a regulatory framework in Zimbabwe.

Other obstacles to adoption of digital Weather Information Services (WIS) include lack of knowledge of information and communication technologies (ICTs), limited use of cellphones and other ICT gadgets, as a source of climate information, and weak capacity to interpret climate information. Compounding the difficulties are poor alignment of information from different sources, insufficient measuring instruments to enable farmers to capture field data, inadequate digital content on indigenous knowledge systems, and lack of proper support structures and facilities.

Prince Kuipa, the Chief Economist of the Zimbabwe Farmers’ Union (ZFU) said that a strong focus of the ZFU EcoFarmer Combo is farmer digital registration using cellphones, and since the solutions are relatively new to most smallholders, a key thrust of the approach is awareness-raising and mobilization, through marketing and promotion.

ZFU plays a critical role in ensuring uptake and long-term sustainability of the bundled solution, leveraging its existing membership, database and sub-national structures.

“Experience in running the programme shows the need for further extension support to farmers when they receive weather information, SMS tips and alerts on livestock and maize on their cellphones. To achieve this, the project is facilitating monthly subscriptions to the Combo for 300 extension workers living in the 100 target wards, paying US$1 per month on their behalf.

“This ensures that extension staff receive the same tips as those sent to the farmers. The extension workers each convene farmer meetings where they explain to the farmers the practical implications on crops and livestock production of the weather information, tips and alerts received. Generally, in Zimbabwe, an extension worker can reach out to 50-100 farmers during a single formal training meeting. So there is potential for the 300 extension workers to help 15,000 to 30,000 farmers increase productivity through climate smart agriculture (CSA) advice, assuming each holds at least one meeting,” Kuipa said.

The success and sustainability of the ZFU EcoFarmer Combo is based on a business model that creates a win-win situation for all participants. It is attractive to the private sector player, Econet Wireless, and farmers benefit through climate change awareness creation and resilience building. An important component planned for the future is to introduce mitigation measures, such as farmer training in woodlot management, and promotion of clean energy solutions, including bio-digesters and solar technologies.

About the author

Byron Adonis Mutingwende