A pair of hands massaging corn dough, preparing to make tortillas. Many associations come to mind when we glimpse an image of hands preparing a meal. In rural Guatemala, where traditional gender roles prevail, the likelihood of those hands belonging to a woman is very high, yet the likelihood that she is preparing food for commercial purposes is very low.
The World Bank’s DIGITAGRO pilot takes aim at both of these challenges. Financed by infoDev, the project helps women make economic inroads in the agri-food space by using digital solutions to link smallholders, and in particular local women agri-preneurs, with the School Feeding Program (SFP), a national program to improve food and nutrition security for Guatemalan schoolchildren.
Deploying Digital Technologies for Rural Development
Broadly, digital technologies are tools that collect, store, analyze, and share information digitally, including mobile phones and the Internet.
DIGITAGRO’s technology deployment aimed to address the information gaps and asymmetries that undermined the functioning of the SFP and prevented women from taking advantage of the program as a profitable market opportunity. It revolved around three main activities:
- The creation of an e-commerce platform, in partnership with the World Food Programme, which showed registered SFP providers shopping lists, quantities, and menus, matched demand and supply between schools and local farmers, and served as a registry for family smallholders to sign up as official SFP providers.
- The production of instructional videos, in partnership with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, targeting women agri-preneurs. The videos provided information about the SFP, practical guidance on how to access the school feeding market, and training on food safety and hygiene standards.
- A digital information campaign encouraged women agri-preneurs to take part in the SFP market and provided essential product, price, and contact information through a short video and SMS reminders.
Can digital technology improve market access for women farmers?
. Today, a beta version of the e-commerce platform is being used by 25,000 schools across Guatemala, connecting them with 45,000 individual sellers. It has been key to ensuring the effective functioning of the SFP at the height of the pandemic, enabling food access for schoolchildren and their families and protecting farmers’ sales and revenue.
But in terms of encouraging women’s participation in the SFP, the results of an impact evaluation conducted among 880 women in 252 villages in the department of San Marcos, where the pilot was carried out, reveal a more complex dynamic.
The study, carried out in collaboration with the World Bank’s Gender Innovation Lab for Latin America and the Caribbean, showed that the campaign increased awareness among rural women about the SFP as an economic opportunity. Women started selling more of their produce and becoming more involved in decision-making in their households.
The campaign proved especially relevant for individuals that were not being reached by traditional extension programs, demonstrating the potential of digital tools to disseminate information to remote populations.
Figure 1 shows the impact of the awareness campaign among women who had not received agricultural training (Panel A) compared to those who did (Panel B).
Despite these positive outcomes, the study also revealed that the campaign did not have an effect on the willingness of participants to join the SFP, pointing to several analog challenges faced by producers when selling their products. Among these is the diverse menu that schools demand from their providers continuously over the year, which is harder for smallholders to supply individually.
Many smallholders also lack the managerial and agricultural skills necessary for successful engagement in the SFP, a process which is perceived as difficult and compounded by low levels of trust in the institutions involved.
How can these challenges be overcome?
An important first step is creating awareness of the SFP, which could be achieved using digital messaging. Secondly, a campaign targeting women as economic decision-makers, coupled with e-extension services to provide well-targeted technical assistance, could also increase participation numbers.
And finally, while there are broader, structural barriers that pose a challenge, including unequal access to land, mistrust in public institutions and reluctance to formalization, among others, some of these could be addressed by making changes to the SFP to help align its structure to the reality of smallholder producers and women. For example, a price premium could help compensate providers for higher food quality, while modifying technical assistance on the ground to cater to potential SFP providers, simplifying the process to register as a provider, and supporting the establishment of producers’ associations would help make the SFP more accessible.
At the same time, linking smallholder farmers to these programs, which represent a reliable source of stable income, is now more important than ever.
The COVID-19 pandemic and the Russia-Ukraine war are raising food prices and reducing food access while jeopardizing the livelihoods of smaller producers excluded from global value chains. DIGITAGRO has shown that digital technologies can support this agenda, but that more needs to be done to ensure the vulnerable are fully integrated in the process – and that women be part of the solution.