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How Whatsapp Strengthens Livelihoods of Women Farmers in Rural Zimbabwe

Whatsapp [1] (icon shown in Figure 1) is improving women farmer’s social capital – facilitating effective social networks in rural Zimbabwe.  We know that mobile technology use leads to information sharing – with the possibility of building social capital and leading to asset creation.  Some even argue that ultimately this can lead to better and sustainable livelihoods strategies.  There is talk, however, to suggest that many rural women in sub-Saharan Africa have not realised the benefits of mobile technology, despite widespread positive outcomes of mobile phone uptake in agricultural settings [2].  This is concerning, so exploring Zimbabwe’s situation is perhaps relevant and enlightening.

Figure 1: Whatsapp Icon

Whatsapp is facilitating access to support networks which better allow rural women farmers to pursue sustainable livelihoods in Zimbabwe.  Support networks (for example informal farming groups, church and savings’ clubs, as well as formal support from local NGOs and extension workers) are prevalent here.  In fact these links are particularly valuable in an environment (vulnerability context) which is typified by four factors.  First there are complex market trends (like flooded livestock markets and price fluctuations).  Then there are confounding financial shocks (like the lack of capital and abundant cash shortages).  Third are the challenging and extreme climatic shocks.  Fourth is the threat of disease (which is usually high and persistent throughout the year)[3].

Such characteristics are compounded by multiple role expectations on these rural women, and multifaceted, often contradictory structural relations.  Inequalities of access and women’s multiple competing roles limit opportunities [4], and so it seems reasonable to argue that social networks are central to mitigating vulnerability, which in turn enhance sustainable livelihoods prospects for Zimbabwean rural women livestock farmers.  In this sense, social media application Whatsapp is being used to [3] (see Figure 2):

a) Solve livestock problems, for example rural women are able to post/ send photos and videos of livestock to Whatsapp group members with common livestock interests, local vets and extension workers.

b) Help out in emergencies, allowing quick access to Whatsapp group forums to warn community members when livestock is stolen/ when disease threats arise, thereby efficiently coordinating emergency visits.

c) Build and strengthen women’s networks whereby women chat to each other and seek advice/ information through Whatsapp group forums.

Figure 2: A Zimbabwean Woman Using Whatsapp [3]

Essentially effective support is garnered through creating Whatsapp chat groups to openly communicate livestock issues.  Granted, some women do not have smart phones (largely due to cost), but it seems normal that an informed connection is never far off [3].  Also, in true Zimbabwean style, more experienced women farmers share experiences and knowledge with younger women farmers, serving as mentoring platforms where strong bonds are often formed through vulnerabilities and hardships.  A strong sense of togetherness and willingness to assist each other through these open channels ensues.

Whatsapp is accepted as a cheaper, useful and effective way of coordinating meetings (see Figure 3 – a photo with a group of livestock farmers brought together using Whatsapp).  A preferred form of communication, it enables rural women to inform each other, keep records of, and forward important (livestock) information.  It is perceived as being revolutionary in transforming communication amongst community members [3].

Figure 3: A Group Meeting in the Mashonaland East Province of Zimbabwe [3]

Given its apparent prominence in allowing economical flow of useful information, it is permissible to suggest that social networks accessed through Whatsapp are facilitating rural women’s pursuit of (diversified) livelihoods in an otherwise complex and challenging vulnerability context.  It would be useful to explore how the same/ similar mobile phone applications can be used to provide equal/ further access to key influential social and political networks [5] in order to abate the apparent perceived complex and contradictory structural relations and gender differences in such contexts. 

References 

[1]  Whatsapp is a cross-platform messaging and voice over IP service that allows users to send text messages, documents, images, and other media.  It also allows users to make voice and video callsChat groups can also be formed on the application.  Whatsapp (2018). Simple. Secure. Reliable messaging. Whatsapp [Online]. Available at: https://www.whatsapp.com/ [Accessed 28 November 2018].

[2]  Baird, T.D., and Hartter, J., (2017). Livelihood diversification, mobile phones and information diversity in Northern Tanzania. Land Use Policy, 67, pp.460-471.

[3]  Author’s Zimbabwean fieldwork data, August – September 2017.

[4]  Wyche, S., and Olson, J., (2018). Gender, Mobile, and Mobile Internet Kenyan Women’s Rural Realities, Mobile Internet Access, and “Africa Rising”. Information Technologies & International Development, 14, p.15.

[5]  Ruswa, G., (2007). The Golden Era?: Reflections on the First Phase of Land Reform in Zimbabwe. African Institute for Agrarian Studies.

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Categories: e-Agriculture, m4d Tags: , ,
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