COVID-19 has presented not only a health crisis, but a burgeoning economic catastrophe as well. A recent McKinsey report notes that in 2020, African economies could experience a catastrophic loss from US$90 billion to US$200 billion, a 3–8% drop in GDP growth, and delayed or reduced foreign direct investment. Such a massive hit will require immense resources and focus at a continental level, as well as data-driven, gender-sensitive solutions at the local level.
Emerging evidence suggests that women will disproportionately suffer the economic impacts of COVID-19. Globally, women earn less, save less, hold less secure jobs, constitute most single-parent households, and face increases in gender-based violence during times of high household stress. In Malawi, women face inequitable access to markets, credit, agricultural inputs, and labor. Development programs must consider the reality of COVID-19’s impact on women and utilize existing activity structures to help vulnerable populations worldwide. Likewise, donor organizations must exercise flexibility as implementing organizations highlight how to best adapt programs to shifting needs in the field.
Through our work with the Agricultural Transformation Initiative (ATI) in Malawi, we have adapted the existing infrastructure in our pilot with Opportunity International (OI) to collect data and drive local insights to address COVID-19. This pilot is a technology-enabled extension service that works with lenders to provide accessible loans to rural farmers and smartphones to Farmer Support Agents (FSAs) — local community leaders, who help farmers access and utilize financial and educational products tailored to their communities. OI purposefully recruited an equal number of men and women FSAs for the pilot and has reported that women are early adapters of these technologies.
OI plans to select high-performing FSAs for a financial diary exercise that will shine light on the challenges that farmers and microentrepreneurs are facing during the pandemic. These diaries will collect sex-disaggregated data on sales, customer prices, expenses, demands, revenues, and more. All data are linked to national ID cards, allowing for cross-referencing within larger demographic data sets to produce deep insights. Given current social distancing protocols, FSAs have been equipped with personal protective equipment (PPE) and are mandated to perform all work outdoors in groups of no more than five. This program will allow us to understand the immediate needs on the ground, such as access to loan grace periods and formalized savings accounts with banks. Utilizing this human-centered design approach, we’ll be able to organize activities that directly address farmers’ needs.
From initial financial diary data collected by OI in Ghana and Uganda, it is abundantly clear that rural female entrepreneurs are facing the most significant demand shocks, including fewer sales and a lower volume of sales per customer. Since the start of the pandemic, OI has found that in Ghana, 13% of businesses surveyed have cut staff, and twice as many women as men have been impacted by disruptions to the supply chain. In Uganda, 60% of enterprises saw an increase in household expenses, and 13% of enterprises sold assets to cope. OI can use these data to update their business and loan offerings to address these urgent issues. Given the long-term impacts of the pandemic, and the longitudinal nature of these diaries, preliminary data will likely be published later this year, and full results published next year.
Recently, I had the pleasure of participating in SEEP’s Women’s Economic Empowerment in the Time of COVID-19 Virtual Roundtable. This program featured perspectives from 16 different adaptive organizations working to protect women’s employment and entrepreneurship in the developing world. The organizations made a clear case that it is essential to revisit programs, share insights, and maneuver existing infrastructure to address COVID-19. By utilizing programs designed for local contexts, we can dispense relatively small amounts of funding to collect essential entrepreneurship data and begin to address the economic fallout of COVID-19 now, before it widens the gap between men and women. Even organizations that are not strictly focused upon public health must adjust, as the pandemic has proven to touch every aspect of our lives.