The Benefits of Mobile Phone Applications to Women Livestock Keepers in Zimbabwe

Pfavai Nyajeka and Richard Duncombe

Mobile phone applications have offered much value in the livelihoods of women in rural Zimbabwe.  Research conducted in resettlement areas during 2017 and 2018 used mixed methods to collect data on samples of women livestock keepers (Figure 1) who were household-heads (HHHs) or non-household heads (NHHs), providing an understanding of the unique forms of hardship that are imposed on married, single, divorced or widowed women in their pursuance of livelihoods.  The research investigated how women farmers used mobile phones to strengthen their position in livestock keeping and mitigate their vulnerability.

Figure 1. An Interview with a Woman Livestock Keeper in the Mashonaland East Province of Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe, in common with other sub-Saharan African countries, was experiencing a revolution in digital communications prior to and up until the end of the study period; but Zimbabweans, and particularly those in rural areas, remained disadvantaged due to poor electrical grid connections and digital connectivity compared with some other sub-Saharan African countries (Table 1).

Table 1. Digital Landscape: Selected Indicators for 2018

Country/Region % of rural population with access to electricity % of population using the Internet Mobile cellular subscriptions (per 100 inhabitants) (a) Secure internet servers (per 1 million inhabitants)  
Botswana 24 58 150 134
Kenya 58 19.5 96 217
South Africa 67 62.4 160 12,032
Zimbabwe 19 25 89 47
sub-Saharan Africa 22 29 94 794

Sources: Human Development Report (2019) and ITU (2018) Indicators Database; see: World Bank Open Data | Data

(a) including accounts with mobile money service providers.

Women livestock keepers in resettlement areas (Mashonaland East and Midlands) pursued their livelihoods within a challenging vulnerability context, typified by adverse climatic conditions, volatile markets and lack of support services (Figure 2).  Their ability to participate in local economic development was also constrained by their position within the largely patriarchal social structures that govern livestock keeping in Zimbabwe.

Figure 2. Community Meeting Place for Women Livestock Keepers in the Midlands Province of Zimbabwe

Use of mobile phones enabled the women to resolve problems quickly, saving time that could be more profitably spent on other income generating activities.  One HHH commented… “no one likes to be constantly travelling distances to chase buyers or debtors, so you find that a lot of women livestock farmers in this area depend on their mobile phones to remind buyers or debtors about upcoming livestock sales and money owed.  A lot of the time constant mobile phone reminders are enough.  Even when the person on the other end does not answer the phone or respond to a message or post, seeing that missed call, or text, or post, is often enough to put pressure on debtors.  Some (women) will post a reminder on social media group forums such as WhatsApp.  You find that this is very effective and frees up time and money for them (women livestock keepers) to focus their energies on other things”.

WhatsApp was used for group messaging and exchanging of photos and short videos related to problems or threats to livestock.  WhatsApp was particularly useful in instances when livestock farmers used group chats to coordinate an emergency veterinary department’s visit.  One focus group participant in the Midlands province (Figure 3) stated… “we as women farmers can communicate quickly… this also allows us to get advice on livestock disease outbreaks.  Although some women do not have smart phones, due to the expense, everyone knows someone who has access to information through community WhatsApp groups… no one in the community is left out as the message can be spread quickly, meaning we are quickly able to manage disease and risks” (Respondent 49).

Figure 3. A Group Meeting with Woman Livestock Keepers in the Midlands Province of Zimbabwe

In addition to WhatsApp, locally designed applications such as Kurima Mari[1]provided farmers with information on livestock management, livestock market updates and information on crop production, with English, Shona and Ndebele language options.  Another platform service was EcoFarmer[2]– introduced in 2013 as a ‘weather indexed insurance business’ and EcoCash[3]– a mobile payment solution for Econet customers that let farmers carry out financial transactions and pay bills.

The survey suggested a high degree of independent information searching on behalf of married women.  Phones enabled women livestock keepers to enquire about market prices either directly or through the app, ascertain where livestock demand was, quantities, and agreed periods of payment, before travelling to market.  

The survey results also showed significant usage of mobile banking apps (such as EcoCash).  Many women moved to mobile banking due to the cash shortages, but most also viewed mobile money as the safest means of transferring money and conducting transactions.  Mobile banking fees were generally lower compared to bank charges, and some farmers were able to make and receive payments and gain access to credit more easily.  

Some key findings from the study include…

  • A largely positive picture of the use of mobile phones amongst women livestock keepers.  Everyday use of mobile phones and applications has brought considerable benefits associated with better overall communications, helping to meet rural women farmers’ information needs in a timely manner.
  • A divergence of the results according to whether the woman livestock keeper is a HHH or NHH.  HHHs tend to be more active in relation to income generation due to not having to defer to the waged husband in the household.  The use of the phone tends to reinforce and strengthen this income earning activity for HHHs, both in relation to livestock keeping and other income earning opportunities.
  • Various limits and social pressures are placed on the NHHs in the use of their phones, thus restricting the ability of NHHs to accrue the full benefits of phone use.  The ability of NHHs to link with new social networks and other livestock intermediaries is limited.
  • Despite the potential benefits, the cost of accessing information with mobile phones could be prohibitive, even when considering the relatively low initial cost of buying (mostly) second-hand phones.  In part this is dealt with by opting for cheaper phone data bundles that facilitate use of web-based applications such as WhatsApp.

The results of this research will be presented at the International Conference on Information and Communication Technologies and Development (ICTD 2022) in Seattle between June 27th – 29th and published in the Conference proceedings.  International Conference on Information & Communication Technologies and Development (

[1] Kurima Mari is a family farming Knowledge Platform which gathers and digitized quality information on family farming from all over the world; including national laws and regulations, public policies, best practices, relevant data and statistics, researches, articles and publications. Kurima Mari – Apps on Google Play

[2] EcoFarmer provides farmers, government, contracting companies, NGOs and farmer unions a range of digital solutions to assist productivity across the agriculture value chain. Launched in 2013 as a weather indexed insurance and micro insurance product with an SMS based advisory service it has evolved to offering diversified services like Vaya Tractor, logistics, warehousing, cold chain, Hay Bailing, combine harvesting and soil testing. Farmers register to access the application by paying a small charge.  Services for Farmers – EcoFarmer

[3] EcoCash is a mobile payment solution for Econet customers in Zimbabwe. It facilitates financial transactions, like sending money, the purchase of prepaid airtime or data and payments for goods and services, using a mobile phone.



Latest Digital Development Outputs (Data, Labour, Platforms, Society, Ed Tech, MSc) from CDD, Manchester

Recent outputs – on Data-for-Development; Digital Labour; Digital Platforms; Digital Society; Ed Tech; MSc Programme – from Centre for Digital Development researchers, University of Manchester:


Data Powered Positive Deviance: Combining Traditional and Non-Traditional Data to Identify and Characterise Development-Related Outperformers” (open access) by Basma Albanna, Richard Heeks, Julia Handl and colleagues from the DPPD project, presents a new methodology through which datasets can be used to identify “positive deviants” – those who outperform their peers in development – and to identify and scale the factors behind their outperformance.

Publication Outperformance among Global South Researchers: An Analysis of Individual-Level and Publication-Level Predictors of Positive Deviance” (open access) by Basma Albanna, Julia Handl & Richard Heeks, uses interviews, a survey and analysis of online datasets to identify those among a group of global South researchers who outperform their peers.  It identifies characteristics of both the high-performing researchers and their publications.


Systematic Evaluation of Gig Work Against Decent Work Standards: The Development and Application of the Fairwork Framework” (open access) by Richard Heeks, Mark Graham, Paul Mungai, Jean-Paul Van Belle & Jamie Woodcock, explains the development and application of the Fairwork framework, which is used worldwide to rate gig economy platforms against decent work standards.

Stripping Back the Mask: Working Conditions on Digital Labour Platforms during the COVID-19 Pandemic” (open access) by Kelle Howson, Funda Ustek-Spilda, Alessio Bertolini, Richard Heeks and other colleagues from the Fairwork project, analyses the Covid policies of 191 platforms in 43 countries. It finds some positive worker protections but also entrenchment of precarious work as platforms leverage the opportunities arising from the crisis.


Digital Platforms for Development” (open access) by Brian Nicholson, Petter Nielsen & Johan Saebo, provides an editorial introduction to a special issue of Information Systems Journal on the link between digital platforms and development processes.

Driving the Digital Value Network: Economic Geographies of Global Platform Capitalism” (open access) by Kelle Howson, Fabian Ferrari, Funda Ustek-Spilda, Richard Heeks and other colleagues from the Fairwork project, uses insights from global value chain and global production network frameworks to analyse power imbalances and value extraction across territories by gig economy platforms.


“Toolkit for Measuring Digital Skills and Digital Literacy“ (open access) by authors at CSIS Indonesia, supported by Matthew Sharp, offers a comprehensive and original framework for measuring digital skills in Indonesia and other G20 countries. The toolkit incorporates insights from pilot individual and firm-level surveys on digital skills undertaken by CSIS in the Greater Jakarta area.

How can Smart City Shape a Happier Life? The Mechanism for Developing a Happiness Driven Smart City” by Huiying Zhu, Liyin Shen & Yitian Ren, introduces a Happiness Driven Smart City (HDSC) mechanism, composed of a three-layer structure and underpinned by a set of strategic measures. A case study shows the HDSC mechanism’s effectiveness in helping decision makers understand the status quo, strengths and weaknesses of smart city development in their context, so that their SC blueprint can be better aligned towards a happiness-driven direction.


The Effectiveness of Technology‐Supported Personalised Learning in Low‐and Middle‐Income Countries” (open access) by Louis Major, Gill Francis & Maria Tsapali, provides a meta-analysis examining the impact of students’ use of technology that personalises and adapts to learning level.

Evaluating Digital Personalised Learning Tools in Kenya: A New Research Study” (blog) by Becky Daltry, Louis Major and others, reports on a new research study to rigorously evaluate the integration of digital personalised learninginto Kenyan classrooms for young children, aged between 4-8 years old.


Centre for Digital Development staff provide the core directorship and teaching for the University’s new MSc programme in Digital Development, which will launch in Sept 2022.

Has COVID-19 deepened gender digital divides? Insights from platform-driven agricultural value chains in Kenya

Aarti Krishnan, Hallsworth Research Fellow, University of Manchester

The problem: Deepening digital gender divides in platform-driven value chains during COVID-19

The proliferation of digital agricultural platforms (which offer bundling of multiple services) is touted as a way to support women to upgrade in value chains.  However, much research has shown that in platform-driven agricultural value chains, gender digital divides exist. Especially in relation to the inability to ‘access’ or ‘participate’ on platforms, which may arise due to various reasons cited such as digital illiteracy or technophobia.

 There is less evidence to suggest whether gender digital divides are exacerbated post-participation, i.e. once men and women are accessing agricultural services on a platform. Are men and women able to ‘access’ the digital services of the platform equally, i.e. do female farmers experience greater delays in receiving the digital services they need, compared to men? Additionally, do women and men have different experiences in how digital products and services are ‘used’? Studies to date show mixed results in terms of the frequency of engagement and the types of digital services demanded by female farmers, but we know little about how all this has been impacted by COVID-19. Through COVID-19, supply chains have been disrupted, which has possible implications on exacerbating issues related to the ‘access’ and ‘use’ of digital services – with important questions arising on ‘who gets access and how’ to digital services and in turn on ‘what can be used’. Thus, possibly deepening the existing gender digital divides.

The waves of COVID-19 in Kenya

To investigate this issue, analysis was undertaken of agricultural platform transactions, capturing data on five agricultural seasons between March 2019-Aug 2020: two seasons before COVID-19, and three season during the pandemic. The data was gathered from one of Kenya’s largest farmer-owned cooperative platforms which works through SMS and USSD options for cereal, bean, and soybean farmers. In order to unpack implications on whether gender digital divides were exacerbated through COVID-19, the data was divided into three waves, which indicated different stringency measures taken by governments and varied levels of fear amongst the public.

–  The first wave of COVID-19 overlapped with agricultural season 3 (March-Aug 2020): during this time there were major national lockdowns inhibiting movement, closures of workplaces, schools, reducing availability of public services coupled with fast growing new cases and general panic among the population.

– The second wave of COVID-19 overlapped with agricultural season 4 (Sept 2020-Feb 2021): this involved easing of lockdown measures, coupled with a small but steady decrease in number of cases. The levels of panic were also less amongst the public.

– During the third wave of COVID-19 (March-Aug 2021), cases began climbing again and there were intermittent lockdowns across the country. Thus, there was a bit more fear amongst the public, but not at the same level as in the first COVID-19 wave.

Did the waves of COVID-19 deepen gender digital divides?

‘Use’ is explicated as how farmers use the app i.e. the transaction stability (number of transactions farmers perform); and the types of services they demanded (e.g.  pesticides, fertilizers, mechanisation, good agricultural practices etc); while ‘access’ is the time taken by the platform to supply different services that farmers demanded.

Figure 1: Use and access of digital services

Source: Author’s Construction

In terms of ‘use’, both men and women increased the number of transactions on the app during COVID as compared to pre-COVID 19 (figure 1). However, the increase for women was steeper than that for men – this difference was consistent, though the jump in wave 1 is particularly stark. This likely reflected woman being more fearful than men about COVID-19 disrupting their production. As eloquently explained by one women’s group in Meru (Kenyan county):

 “if we don’t get services on time, and in the right quantity, we cannot produce enough, and if we can’t produce, we cannot feed our children or send them to school.”

Simultaneously, female farmers throughout COVID-19 began ‘using’ a more diverse set of services, compared to men, with interviews suggesting that using different services allowed them to maximize their chances of increasing crop productivity and income. Thus, female farmers attempted to reduce risk by trying to ‘produce carefully and efficiently’, while the data for male farmers indicates almost no change in services, thus suggesting no change in production methods.

However, even with an increase in ‘use’, women struggled with ‘access’. This means that despite wanting more services, they were not able to fully receive them. Figure 1 indicates that this digital gender divides already existed pre-COVID, with women having less ‘access’ to services (with longer time lags compared to men). However, during COVID-19 these issues were exacerbated across the waves, with access issues (time lags) increasing to as much as 6 weeks to receive services by women, compared to only 4 weeks for men. ‘Access’ issues were worst felt in wave 1, where lockdown was rampant, and eased slightly in wave 2, only to increase again by wave 3.

Ultimately this shows that not only did gender digital divides deepen during the pandemic, but that even by wave 3, when things were starting to go back to normal, the level of ‘access’ did not reach its pre-pandemic levels.

How can reducing deep gender digital divides promote resilience?

Overarchingly, the results highlight that to support resilience of women through the pandemic requires increasing inclusivity by providing female farmers ‘easier access’ to services. This can in turn considerably increase overall performance of agriculture in times of crisis.