Increasing information sharing with women farmers in Odishan smallholder households

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Precision Development (PxD) recognizes that the informational needs of poor women farmers, and the challenges they confront, are unique. As a consequence, our services must be tailored to reach and be relevant to the needs of women users. Driven largely by the onboarding of women active in livestock-related activities, the number of women farmers active on platforms built by PxD increased by approximately 46% over the course of 2021. This included the onboarding of over 150,000 women farmers to our Ama Krushi (AK) service, which we deliver in partnership with the Government of Odisha, India. As we mark International Women’s Day, we reflect on efforts we have made to improve our understanding of gendered divisions of labor and bargaining power within Odishan smallholder households, and steps we are taking to assist women farmers make more informed decisions. 

Scoping work undertaken by PxD suggests that women farmers spend more productive hours on livestock farming than men. However, women farmers disproportionately lack access to mobile phones and, by extension, digitally conveyed information. Perhaps the largest impediment to increased engagement with PxD’s advisory on the part of women farmers is access to information, and patterns of information sharing within households. This could have knock-on effects that undermine women’s productivity and bargaining power within the household. To further understand these dynamics, we explored if sending messages encouraging information sharing within households can assist in breaking this cycle. 

The motivation

Gendered roles in livestock farming 

In June 2021, we conducted a survey to improve our understanding of gender roles in livestock farming in Odisha. The sample consisted of 5,354 AK farmers who have subscribed to livestock-related advisory, practice cow-rearing, and had received at least one livestock advisory message via the AK service. The sample included equal numbers of male and female users and was stratified by the farmer’s district. Of this sample, we successfully surveyed 1,475 AK farmer users. 

We found that, on average, women AK users allocate more time to livestock rearing and household chores than male AK users (Table 1). Relative to male AK users, women spend less time on cropping activities and on other non-livestock-related income-generating activities.

The survey also found that men AK users are significantly more likely to perform—and be the primary decision-maker for—livestock-related tasks that require travel outside of the home. These types of activities include veterinary visits, purchases of livestock-related inputs, selling milk, and sourcing fodder. Women, on the other hand, are more likely to be involved in livestock-related activities performed at home, such as cleaning sheds, feeding, and milking animals. Given the heavy involvement of women farmers in livestock-related activities, it is important that livestock advisory broadcast via our AK service is communicated to women household members if it is to be practical. 

Importantly, many income-related improvements in livestock outcomes—such as increasing milk yields and successful breeding—depend on the coordination of multiple tasks performed by both men and women within a household. For example, successful breeding requires the completion and timely sequencing of tasks and processes, including the provision of sufficient nutrition, deworming, heat detection, and accessing artificial insemination (AI) services. To achieve these ends, it is important that livestock advisory reaches both women and men in the household, and that intra-household communication is sufficient to coordinate improved livestock outcomes and household welfare maximization.

Barriers to information for female farmers

Reaching female farmers through mobile phone extension services is challenging as men farmers are more likely to be the primary owners of mobile phones in the household (OECD, 2018; Baroni et. al., 2018). Evidence suggests that women registered as subscribers to PxD’s mobile advisory services have shared access to phones and male partners are the devices’ primary users. PxD uses polling surveys to maintain and improve quality service delivery, and to source feedback from users. Women AK users polled for our May 2021 livestock survey self-reported lower pick-up rates than male respondents. However, actual outbound AK administrative data does not reflect a gendered disjuncture in pick-up rates. An explanation of this could be that the household member who picked up the phone when an AK call was placed to a women farmer was not the registered woman user. Similarly, during this gender survey in Odisha, we asked the respondent who picked up the phone if they were the registered AK user. In the case of registered women AK users, someone else picked up the call 12% of the time, compared to only 5% in the case of registered men AK users. This difference is statistically significant at the 1% level. This suggests that when a phone is being shared, registered users that are women have less time with the phone than men. Given the greater engagement of women in livestock-related activities, this gendered barrier in mobile phone extension services is a significant challenge.

To gather more evidence on AK users’ individual access to mobile phones, we asked about a quarter of the AK users in the Gender Scoping Survey (n=370) about their typical access to mobile phones between 6 a.m. and 9 p.m. every day. Women AK users reported less availability at all times of the day (Figure 1). However, the difference is only statistically significant at the 10% level for the 3 p.m. to 4 p.m. period (both in the full sample and the married-only sample). Due to the smaller sample size, we may be underpowered to detect other differences.

Figure 1: Gender differences in individual access to phone

Interestingly, when we restrict the analysis to household heads only, women report higher average access to their mobile phones than men. The Gender Scoping Survey finds that the time-use patterns of women heads of households closely follow those of men heads of households (Table A1), there are a few possible reasons for this deviation in self-reported access to mobile phones. A possibility is that male heads of households are more likely to share their phones with their spouses or children. By contrast, the Gender Scoping Survey found that women heads of household are typically unmarried (or widowed, separated, or divorced) and therefore may not need to share their phones as much as men heads of household.

Consistent with the evidence above, the Gender Scoping Survey finds that men AK users are significantly more likely to cite Ama Krushi as a primary source of livestock information than women AK users (Table 2), while the polling survey finds that women AK users are significantly less likely to answer knowledge questions based on livestock advisory sent in the month preceding the survey correctly.

Importantly, AK users seldom cite their spouses as a source of livestock information or as someone they discuss new livestock information with, a gap in intra-household information transfer that PxD could potentially influence. Improving intra-household communication can potentially increase the reach of PxD’s advisory to existing registered women AK users who may not be picking up the outbound advisory, but also extend the reach of our advisory to the wives and women children of men registered as AK users on the livestock service.

Adoption: Individual vs joint access to information

To better understand intra-household dynamics of information transmission and adoption, we asked respondents to the Gender Scoping Survey if they find it easy to convince their spouses to adopt new livestock practices when they receive such information. Of the respondents, 76% replied yes to this question, and we found no significant differences by gender. This percentage increased to 90% when we asked if listening to the advisory jointly with their spouses on the phone’s speaker would make it easier for them to adopt the recommended practices. A gendered analysis of this increase did not detect a statistically significant difference between men and women users.

Therefore, we find suggestive evidence that getting livestock recommendations to female farmers is the primary barrier to increasing the benefits accruing to our digital advisory. When women farmers receive advisory, they may be just as likely to influence adoption decisions as men farmers. Additionally, increasing the shared knowledge of the spouses has a greater potential to increase adoption rates than individual access to information.

Calibrating solutions

The phone's speaker 

One possible solution to reach more women farmers and promote information sharing among spouses is to encourage respondents who pick up advisory calls to use their phones' speakers to listen to the advisory with other household members. We wanted to pilot a nudge to male livestock farmers to listen to advisory messages with their speakerphone turned on with other household members engaged in livestock-related activities. However, we first needed to know if farmers could use their phone's speaker. We conducted a speakerphone feasibility survey to understand:

  1. Whether farmers can use their phone's speaker by themselves.?
    • If not, can we deliver simple instructions during the phone call so that farmers can use the phone's speaker?
  2. Whether we need to build in a time allowance for farmers to activate their speaker and listen to advisory with their household members.? If so, then how much time? 
  3. Whether farmers are willing to use their phone's speaker and listen to the advisory with other household members.?

Of the 90 respondents who consented to the survey, 76.67% could turn on their phone's speaker without any instructions (67.92% of feature phone users and 89.19% of smartphone users). Following simple instructions on how to use their speaker, 84.44% of respondents could do so. Overall, 89.19% of respondents were able to turn on their phone's speaker within 10 seconds of being asked to do so, and of those, 96.2% were willing to use their phone's speaker to listen to future AK advisory with their family members. As a consequence we are confident there are no large technical or aspirational barriers to adopting the nudge and we moved to pilot it in different forms.

Assessing potential interventions

These results encouraged us to test nudges in three ways for one month: 

  1. A separate IVR nudge asking users to call into our inbound service for joint-listening over their speakerphone (n=600); 
  2. A text 20 minutes before the weekly livestock advisory asking them to turn on their phone's speaker and listen to the advisory with members of the household involved in livestock-related activities (n=500);
  3. An additional script at the start of the weekly livestock outbound with the same nudge as in Method 2 (n=500).

All the nudges were sent between 6 and 8 pm based on the findings on joint availability in the gender survey. Before implementing an A/B test to measure the effectiveness of these interventions, we conducted small pilots to select the most promising methods.

In the pilot, we did not find that nudging farmers to use the inbound services (Method 1) was very successful. We sent a nudge call to 600 farmers, asking them to dial a toll-free number to listen to the livestock advisory on the speakerphone with their family. A total of 12 people (and 14 total calls) dialed into the service within a week of the nudge, but none accessed the feature to listen to the livestock advisory. While this does not eliminate the possibility that nudged farmers discussed the call's content with their spouses, we did not pursue this method to achieve the specific objective of joint listening.

For farmers who were nudged through an SMS (Method 2), using a short survey, we found that only 4% of respondents recalled the nudge's content (n=126). We concluded that this method was unlikely to translate into increased joint-listening or improved knowledge and adoption.

Using another short survey, we found that farmers who were nudged in the introduction of the weekly livestock outbound advisory (Method 3) were 22 percentage points more likely to report having listened to the advisory message jointly with household members than those who received the regular outbound advisory (ntreatment = 61; ncontrol=45). As this method showed the most promise, we conducted an A/B test deploying it to 17,000 farmers over ten weeks starting in late October. We are currently reviewing data from this test and will share the learnings when they are available.

The authors would like to thank Qi Xue, PxD Intern, who offered valuable assistance in executing the surveys and preliminary analysis underpinning this post, as well as Niriksha Shetty, Tomoko Harigaya, and Otini Mpinganjira for their insights and guidance.