Agritech can empower women to build stronger, inclusive value chains

Though often overlooked by financial service providers, women play an outsize role in making Côte d’Ivoire the world’s largest producer and exporter of cashew nuts. From producing to picking and processing cashews, women are key actors throughout the country’s cashew value chain.

But even as the government has prioritized the expansion of local cashew production and processing to drive economic growth, women’s productivity and incomes remain constrained by poor access to finance and markets.

Photo: World Bank/ Arne Hoel

Recognizing the cashew industry’s importance to the national economy, CIDR Pamiga, MSC (MicroSave Consulting) and Mobisoft/Agristore joined forces to address the complex issues facing actors – including women – across Côte d’Ivoire’s cashew value chain. Together, they launched the Wi-Agri agritech platform, a “one-stop shop” for agricultural value chains in West Africa that offers financial services, market access, business training and extension services to smallholder farmers, wage laborers, buyers, small processing businesses and exporters.

Because of the critical role women play in the cashew industry, their needs are at the core of Wi-Agri’s product design. By leveraging financial services to improve rural women’s access to and returns on labor and markets, Wi-Agri’s offerings can help them build more resilient livelihoods and a stronger cashew value chain.

How lack of access to finance and markets affects women’s livelihoods in the cashew value chain

Women make up about 20% of Côte d’Ivoire's 350,000 cashew producers. An additional 1.5 to 2 million women are involved in picking and processing the crop.

Women in these roles often lack access to markets where they can sell crops at good prices. As the chart below demonstrates, they also lack access to formal banks and microfinance institutions, and many rely on informal finance provided by savings groups. Although most have a mobile money account, they remain largely unaware of the range of financial services available from their phones, primarily using the accounts to send and receive remittances.

Source: CIDR Pamiga

This lack of access to markets and finance affects women in different ways across the value chain.

Producers rely heavily on the income they earn from cashew production to cover household expenses. Women in this role tend to be older than those in other roles across the value chain. They often work the land themselves, sometimes with the help of their children. Women cashew producers often lack access to financing for inputs and labor, which limits their productivity, and they often rely on informal local buyers who typically offer below-market price for cashews. These constraints ultimately limit earnings.

Wage laborers that producers hire to harvest the fruit and separate the cashew apple from the nut are often referred to as “pickers.” These workers tend to be younger than producers, averaging 30 years old. Many work on cashew farms to cover their families’ expenses, while also growing subsistence crops for household consumption. Because many cashew producers lack the funds to pay laborer wages, they are often forced to either pay pickers in-kind with a portion of the cashew crop or wait to pay until their harvest is sold. For pickers paid in-kind, access to markets can determine when they are paid and how much they ultimately earn. For those who aren’t paid until producers sell their crops, lack of access to formal savings or credit to fall back on until they receive their earnings leaves them unable to cover urgent family expenses.

Once the harvest is complete, pickers often seek jobs at local cashew processors. They use their earnings to save and invest in their own farms and businesses in hopes of improving their livelihoods. However, employment at local processors can be unreliable. An estimated 80-90% of Côte d’Ivoire’s cashew production is exported as raw nuts to be processed abroad. Because processors only hire when they can source cashew from local producers, competition from exporters means lost income for the tens of thousands of rural women who rely on this seasonal wage labor.

How Wi-Agri addresses the needs of women in the cashew value chain

At the core of Wi-Agri’s offerings is a market linkage service which connects sellers with local buyers offering fair prices for raw cashew. By helping rural women bypass middlemen offering below-market prices in favor of formal buyers such as local cashew processors, the market linkage service provides women producers an opportunity to obtain a better price for their harvests. Similarly, market linkages can provide opportunities for women wage laborers paid in-kind to improve the amount and timeliness of their earnings. By prioritizing sales to small local processing businesses, Wi-Agri services can strengthen local value chains and ensure that local processors have the reliable supply of cashew they need to provide wage labor opportunities for rural women.

Wi-Agri also offers a suite of financial services adapted to the diverse profiles and needs of women throughout the cashew value chain. For example, Wi-Agri provides producers with access to short-term credit and digital payments needed to hire and pay laborers, helping them pay workers immediately and in cash, rather than waiting until the harvest is sold or paying in raw cashew. Laborers can also access credit to cover immediate expenses as they wait for their wages, savings that allow them to set aside money for their own farms and business and digital payments that for many offer a first opportunity to engage with formal financial services.

To ensure women can access and fully benefit from these solutions, Wi-Agri is also adapting content and delivery methods to their unique needs. For example, the platform is working to overcome women’s barriers to smartphone ownership by offering device financing through a local partner. In addition, Wi-Agri works to empower women producers and laborers to organize women-led cooperatives, provides financial and business management education and offers agricultural advisory through voice-based modules in local languages, ensuring accessibility for illiterate women. Particular attention is given to strengthening women’s capacity to negotiate with buyers in the Wi-Agri marketplace through their cooperatives. These women-led cooperatives also allow laborers, who tend to be younger with aspirations to graduate into cashew production, to interact with and learn from the older women producers whose role they may one day inhabit.

Why Wi-Agri offers a model for building stronger, more inclusive value chains across West Africa

Wi-Agri launched its services in 2021, enrolling over 2,000 subscribers to date, including smallholder farmers, licensed cashew buyers, cooperatives and small processing businesses. In the coming months, the platform will continue to work with financial institutions, advisory services providers, women’s leadership organizations, input suppliers and the Côte d’Ivoire government to expand and improve upon its services. However, Côte d’Ivoire’s cashew value chain is only the beginning. Ultimately, Wi-Agri hopes to become a model for strengthening agricultural value chains and the livelihoods of rural women across West Africa. To this end, Wi-Agri is working on plans to expand into additional crops and new markets, including Burkina Faso, Senegal and beyond.

This article was originally posted by CGAP.