The race to limit the spread of Covid-19 has, through necessity, accelerated many other transformations that were already under way, including the digital revolution in African agriculture.

What had previously been a growing but limited shift towards the use of digital tools and technologies for food production and business has become a lifeline in the face of market restrictions, food insecurity and lockdowns. And among the biggest winners have been women.

Long since excluded from equal resources, from land rights to training, almost 90 per cent of African women with small and medium agricultural enterprises have taken up digital solutions during the pandemic, according to a recent survey. Figures from before the coronavirus outbreak indicated women previously accounted for just a quarter of registered users of digital solutions.

The challenge – and opportunity – now is to build on these gains, and translate participation in the digital marketplace into prosperity in the real marketplace. Through leveraging the potential of digitalisation to level the playing field, African countries can unleash the potential of women in agriculture, who already represent 50 per cent of the workforce and own a third of the small and medium enterprises that produce, process and trade food.

The first benefit provided by digitalisation is more equal access to markets, which has been the greatest limiting factor of the pandemic for almost three-quarters of women. Even before the emergence of Covid-19, women tended to be limited to labour intensive, low value agricultural production activities rather than high-value activities but with market closures and restrictions related to COVID 19, many women have found themselves cut off from their normal business channels.

Online platforms have provided new opportunities for women to continue and grow their operations, with two-thirds taking to social media to market their products in new ways and reach broader audiences.

Increasing internet connectivity in rural areas, scaling up access to mobile technology and improving digital literacy would help more women in agriculture benefit from the digital revolution and enjoy greater market access.

Secondly, digitalisation offers the possibility of more widespread networking and training, particularly for rural women in remote areas where opportunities to participate in workshops or educational sessions are limited. Platforms like VALUE4HERConnect, Africa’s first online portal for agricultural businesswomen, provide gender-responsive services such as a Women2Women community forum that allows women to learn from one another and access mentoring and support services.

The service also offers a Women2Finance pillar and a capacity-building resource to help equip women with the skills, inputs and knowledge to grow their businesses.

Since launching last year, VALUE4HER has engaged more than 600 women across 27 countries and under the leadership of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), will support more women as part of plans to reach up to 5,000 women-led agribusinesses over the next five years.

Initiatives like this, which are designed specifically with women users in mind, will be vital in ensuring the digital dividend reaches African women.

Finally, growing levels of digitalisation offers women greater access to information and services when conventional channels are closed or off-limits, providing greater resilience to shocks and stresses, including the Covid-19 pandemic.

Digital technologies can help reduce the burden of agricultural labour and processing, which is particularly important for women, who continue to take on a greater share of domestic work. They can also help women increase their yields and build up financial resilience to minimise the impact of sudden disasters.

For example, Hello Tractor, a mobile app that allows farmers to hire a tractor on demand, increases the accessibility of mechanised tools while overcoming the prejudice women face by allowing them to interact directly with service providers through a mobile device.

Meanwhile, e-verification tool eHakiki received a grant from AGRA last year for four pilots to help reach 100,000 farmers in Tanzania with a service to identify counterfeit products, helping to build the resilience of women farmers by ensuring the quality of their seeds, pesticides and fertilizers.

Women are a key pillar in Africa’s food and agricultural systems, from taking charge of household nutrition to providing much of the labour on small-scale farms.

It is crucial, not only to the viability of these women’s businesses but to local and regional food security, that the benefits of the digital revolution are extended to women as well. This needs investment in infrastructure and resources from both public and private sector, but it also needs dynamic partnerships to ensure the design of these services feature the unique needs of female farmers and entrepreneurs and that they are affordable and easy to use. Covid-19 may have ruptured business as normal but it has also disrupted longstanding inequalities, creating a chance to build back better.