Sowing Digital Seeds

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Date Published: 
Jan 2018
Author: 
Sberro-Kessler, R. & Spencer, S.

How can we grow female farmers' access to financial services?

Shelley Spencer is the CEO of Strategic Impact Advisors, a consulting firm that specializes in digital technologies for development. Rachel Sberro-Kessler is a financial sector specialist at the World Bank, where she focuses on access to finance for farmers and agricultural small and medium enterprises. 

Worker picking tea leaves, Indonesia. Photo credit: Dhiky Aditya, 2016 CGAP Photo Contest.
Worker picking tea leaves, Indonesia. Photo credit: Dhiky Aditya, 2016 CGAP Photo Contest.

Whether they are smallholders who grow cassava at home, or entrepreneurs running agro-processing plants, women in agriculture are consistently left out of the formal financial system. According to Global Findex, 58% of women worldwide had an account in 2014, compared to 65% of men. The gender gap in financial inclusion widens further in rural areas, with rural women more excluded from financial services than their urban counterparts.

In recent years, significant investment in data-driven, digital financial services (DFS) has begun to build the foundations of a bridge across this gap. When the World Bank’s Global Findex added mobile money to the definition of financial accounts in 2014, an additional 500 million people were financially included, demonstrating that digital tools offer an alternative to traditional financial services that can reach significant numbers.

Given the rapid expansion of DFS use cases in agriculture, the burning question now is: How can women benefit from these tools at equal rates as men?

Momentum is gaining around investment in digital technologies for smallholders, but most aren’t explicitly targeted to women farmers. This is the conclusion of our recent report, Mobile Technologies and Digitized Data to Promote Access to Finance for Women in Agriculture. Prepared by Strategic impact Advisors, the paper is part of a joint effort of the World Bank’s Finance, Competitiveness and Innovation Global Practice and Agriculture Global Practice, with the financial support of the Umbrella Facility for Gender Equality (UFGE).

The report takes stock of over 150 applications, products and initiatives in digital finance and data-driven financial solutions, as well as in mobile agricultural information and advice. Of the 150 products and initiatives we reviewed across eight product categories, 62 target farmers, but only one targets female smallholders. Some initiatives, such as savings groups, focus on women but are not specific to agriculture.

To identify where and how products and services are failing to reach women farmers, we evaluated their financial needs using four globally representative personas developed by agricultural finance experts. These personas provide a framework for assessing how well current products meet different women’s needs: 

Female farmer personas

These needs underpin the demand-side assumptions that we used to evaluate 16 product sets and initiatives across eight service type categories (credit scoring, loan disbursement and collection, savings, insurance, payments, market-pricing, linkages, and agricultural extension). The evaluation was conducted using a well-established marketing mix framework, the 4Ps: product, price, place and promotion.

Our marketing mix review suggests that, in most markets, realizing the potential of DFS to expand access to financial services for women in agriculture will require more market segmentation and greater understanding of how to promote and bundle products to meet the needs of the diversity of women engaged in agriculture.  

For example, in applying the 4Ps to initiatives that are digitizing savings groups, we determined that broader promotion efforts could scale this approach and new products such as commitment savings would benefit female farmers. See Box 1.

Box 1: Aga Khan Foundation Digitized Savings Groups (VSLAs), CARE’s Banking on Change & Oxfam’s Savings for Change + Mobile

Gender assessment of digitizing VSLAs

In another example listed in the report, looking at the gender-neutral savings and instant credit product M-Shwari, we found strong alignment in the product, price and place of delivery with the needs of women in agriculture. Targeted promotion of the product through a marketing campaign in places female farmers frequent could reduce the gender gap in usage. See Box 2.

Box 2: M-Shwari

Gender Assessment of M-Shwari

Digital technology that meets women where they are holds promise for building the final spans of the bridge across the financial access gender gap. With a bias for action, we suggest providers, donors and policy makers invest in and support:

  1. Targeted promotion to women of existing products that have already scaled, such as M-Shwari, and bundling relevant offerings together, such as savings, insurance and credit.
  2. Scaling initiatives and products targeted to women, such as digitizing savings groups.
  3. Tailoring service design to women to take into account their specific aspirations and financial needs.

Women in agriculture don’t need “pink phones,” but rather flexible service products that meet their needs and that are marketed and promoted in resonant ways.


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