Elisabeth Atchade’s cashew orchard in central Benin feels like a world away from the epicenters of the COVID-19 pandemic. But when the government instituted lockdowns and travel restrictions in an effort to stop the spread of the disease, the impact on the mother of four was very real.
“The start of the COVID-19 pandemic coincided with the 2020 cashew harvest and marketing year,” she said. “There were no buyers. Prices dropped drastically to less than $0.36 per kilogram, making it difficult for me to reach my goal this year of starting construction of my house.” At a moment when her farming business needed more attention than ever, though, Elisabeth had other responsibilities. “I was very stressed because my children were forced to stay at home, which increased the burden of housework for me.”
For millions of women like Elisabeth, the COVID-19 pandemic has created new obstacles to their economic participation. The numbers tell a clear story. A World Bank survey found that women-owned businesses in Latin America were 10% more likely to be closed than their men-owned counterparts, and the gender gap in sub-Saharan Africa was 9%. In South Africa, researchers found that women suffered two-thirds of the 3 million job losses caused by the pandemic. When TechnoServe surveyed the owners of food processing businesses in Africa to see how the crisis had impacted them, women owners were 30% more likely to report challenges accessing necessary supplies and 21% more likely to report challenges selling their products.
In light of this crisis, the private sector, civil society, and government must act urgently to safeguard women’s participation in the global economy. But to do that, we must first understand why it’s so jeopardized.
Obstacles to women’s participation
The specific characteristics of the COVID-19 pandemic and the accompanying lockdowns and social distancing have made its economic impacts particularly devastating for women. Women, for example, make up 60% of the workforce in the most severely affected economic sector, food service and hospitality, and are overrepresented in other impacted sectors like micro-retail and informal cross-border trade.
Like Elisabeth, women around the world are picking up most of the added domestic and childcare responsibilities that the pandemic has generated: prior to the pandemic, women were spending 200% more of their time on unpaid labor than were men, and those patterns have not changed with the pandemic. As a result, women have less time to devote to their business, farm, or career.
Finally, as more and more interactions have moved online, the gender gap in access to technology has taken on added importance. In the world’s least-developed countries, men are 52% more likely to have access to the internet than are women, and they are 20% more likely than women to own a smartphone across all low- and middle-income countries. This makes it more difficult for women to reach suppliers and customers, access training, or make financial transactions.
Responding to the challenge
Businesses, governments, and civil society can take concrete steps to address those challenges. It’s important to identify those sectors that are most impacted and find ways to help entrepreneurs and workers adapt to the new circumstances. In El Salvador, for example, the Citi Foundation and TechnoServe worked with Fátima Meléndez, the owner of Lafá Cake Boutique.
The bakery specialized in providing cakes and other pastries for weddings; when public events were banned during the country’s lockdown, the business was at risk of failing. We helped Fátima reinvent her business to instead provide less elaborate cakes for home consumption, and her sales boomed to their highest levels ever as customers sought to treat themselves during the crisis.
It’s also important to engage men and explain to them why it’s important for them to take on a greater share of the domestic responsibilities. We’ve found it particularly helpful to emphasize how this will benefit the family finances, as it allows women to spend more time on economic activities.
Finally, it’s important to make sure that this support is accessible. We use a range of communications channels, depending on the profile of the farmer or entrepreneur we want to reach. In areas where women don’t have access to smartphones, creative solutions are the order of the day. Working with micro-retailers in vulnerable neighborhoods of Maputo, Mozambique, our staff distributed paper copies of the business lessons to supplement training provided by SMS and WhatsApp messages. In northern Nigeria, we enlisted intermediaries in the community who had access to phones to relay the training to women who did not.
In Benin, we took to the radio to reach cashew farmers. That’s how Elisabeth continued to receive agronomy training amid the lockdown, even as she was taking care of her children. Broadcasting in local languages and using women hosts, the BeninCajù program — a partnership TechnoServe is leading with funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture– relayed essential information about cultivating, harvesting, and selling cashew crops.
Elisabeth was able to double her cashew production this year, despite the pandemic, and the extra earnings will help her make additional investments on the farm. Elisabeth is not the only one to benefit from this kind of support. By August, women farmers across 11 TechnoServe programs were actually 1% less likely to report having lost income during the previous month due to the pandemic than were men.
The results show that it is possible to lessen the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on women’s economic opportunities. But we must act now, implementing creative solutions to the challenges that they face.