A Tale of Two Tractors…and what happens when you include women

More than three quarters of farmers in sub-Saharan Africa prepare their fields using back-breaking, antiquated hand hoes. According to Josefa Sacko Commissioner for Rural Economy and Agriculture at the African Union Commission (AUC) “eliminating hunger and malnutrition in Africa by 2025 will be no more than a mirage unless mechanisation is accorded utmost importance.” For women it is even more important: drudgery, the extra four to six hours a day she spends cooking, cleaning and looking after children, is the number one thing that stops her making money in agriculture and anything that saves her time that can be spent doing something more profitable –  processing, adding value, buying and selling – means more cash in the family pot.

As we near International Women’s Day on 8 March I looked at two AGRA-funded projects, both providing mechanisation to smallholder farmers, predominantly tractor hire to free up the time spent laboriously preparing the land by hand. Both projects aimed to attract men and women but did nothing to enhance their offer to women. Bearing in mind the low levels of female landownership both, attracted a disproportionate number of female users. What happened to their women users after that has turned out to be very different and teaches us plenty about how paying attention to gender pays dividends.

The first project helps farmers with a reasonable amount of land with finance to buy a tractor on condition they use it to help nearby smallholders. They are given a list of telephone numbers to call and offer their tractor service for a fee. So far 17 tractors have been financed in the project area, three of which belong to women; 17% of the total. In the first year an impressive 25% of users were also women, but despite a rise in overall numbers this dropped to 17% in the second year. That those two figures are the same is more than coincidence – I see it over and over again, where a programme reflects its staff. In this case women are falling away, and unless something is done will continue to do so, because it relies on owners calling users. Why? Because women hesitate to receive calls from unknown numbers, or if she answers and finds a man on the other end, she probably passes the phone to her husband. If a husband sees a number on his wife’s phone, calls it and a man answers, he beats her first and asks who it was second.

TROTRO Tractor in Ghana, like the first project, make tractors available to smallholders, but their business model is different. They aren’t involved in finance, instead they use a simple SMS and mobile money system that allows smallholder farmers to summon a tractor to their field a bit like Uber for tractors. They were surprised to see the first people to use the service were women, and quickly realised why. Culturally, when a tractor turned up in an area offering its services, it would first plough all the land belonging to men, and if it had time move on to any woman’s field. When a woman summons a TROTRO tractor, she has already paid for it using mobile money and knows that it will be her field that gets ploughed. Once TROTRO’s owners started factoring in gender to their decision making, many more opportunities presented themselves. They found that women tractor drivers were more careful and looked after the tractors better, so they have trained 60 female tractor operators, making the service even more attractive to women. The company now has four female members of staff and five male, including the three men who own it. One of the women is responsible for all monitoring and evaluation, another deals with administration and two work in the call centre. The company’s call centre receives and makes calls, they solve problems for farmers and tractor owners and can book a tractor for a smallholder if they can’t use an SMS. Although by having female call centre workers the service is more accessible to women, the owners made the decision for solid business reasons; they found that people found women easier to talk to and that they are polite and patient. They also use female voices in their local language radio advertising, another reason that the female use of the service stands at 30% and is rising. They already have over 2,000 women users and a shortage of tractors and are looking to expand into Zimbabwe and South Africa.

In the words of owner and founder Kamal Yakub “It’s a business for profit. But we started to see the social aspect of the business and now concentrate more on social enterprise, but not forgetting profit!” for it was profit that led them to pay attention to gender. In 2015 the McKinsey Global Institute looked at what would happen if we gave women the same opportunities as men. They used a ‘best in region’ scenario, where all countries match the rate of the fastest improver in their region. They found that $12 trillion could be added to global GDP by 2025. In microcosm TROTRO Tractor and Kamal Yakub show us how.