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 (ictd.org)


[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. http://www.ecocash.co.zw/about

 

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.