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.

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