Matilda Zuze has lost most of her cattle and has been unable to harvest any maize from her farm in Masvingo, after the rains failed yet again. The farm is located in Masvingo, the region of Zimbabwe worst affected by a drought that started last year. Now she’s not sure how she will feed her four children.
“At the moment we have nothing,” she says. “We are stranded.”
One tech company thinks it has found a solution, a way to help farmers get access to crucial funding to survive the current drought and information to prepare them for the next one. And it wants to do that using Bitcoin.
The Zimbabwe-based company Bitmari has launched a Women Farmers Accelerator Program called Kurima neBitmari (Farming with Bitmari), to help pay for materials and equipment for 100 women farmers. It is the first ever Bitcoin accelerator program for female farmers in Africa. The company aims to boost farming and educate women on the use of Bitcoin as an alternative payment method.
“The Bitmari Women’s Farmers Accelerator has the potential to create a full agricultural value chain,” says Kelvin Mutize, the company’s spokesman. The company seeks to bring direct investment into the agricultural sector, as well as provide necessary training and markets to sell crops across borders with ease.
Established in 2015, Bitmari is a money remittance service for the African market. Because BitCoin is a digital currency, unregulated in Zimbabwe, the company is hoping the technology can prove more efficient and reliable than traditional payment methods.
With its new project, the company plans to leverage Zimbabwe’s high cell phone penetration – over 95% of the population has a mobile phone – to help women farmers access markets, expert advice, cheaper banking methods and startup funds to kickstart the next planting season.
According to Mutize, the company decided to focus on women because it recognized they tend to not benefit directly from agricultural schemes in Zimbabwe, despite the fact that they make up 70 percent of the labor force in the agricultural sector. Compared with their male counterparts, female farmers have less access to assets, training, credit services and markets.
“We created the accelerator to provide them with farming equipment, irrigation technology, knowledge and skills, plus support services needed to increase productivity which is crucial toward their families and communities,” Mutize says.
The company has identified 100 women who are already exceptional farmers and hopes that introducing them to Bitcoin will help boost their productivity.
“The women we selected are amazing and have been farming for quite some time,” says Mutize. “We are just using technology to take their projects to the next level.”
The farmers will be given a Bitcoin payment worth $255 each, through electronic wallets, which they can redeem for goods at selected suppliers. Bitmari thinks this will encourage the nominated women to start using Bitcoin instead of physical cash and eventually increase awareness of the virtual currency throughout Zimbabwe’s rural areas. The farmers will be given one year to undertake their projects and pay back the funds. At the end of the year, they will each nominate another woman and the next group of nominees will receive the funds paid back from the previous year.
The current financial crisis has left the country with virtually no cash in the banks. Analysts have likened the situation to the 2009 economic crisis, when hyperinflation rendered the country’s currency, the Zimbabwean dollar, worthless. At the time, the country adopted the U.S. dollar and South African rand as a counter measure, but banks have now run out of U.S. dollar reserves. This has caused widespread panic with people eager to withdraw their funds from banks, and banks imposing strict cash withdrawal limits. To aid the situation the Zimbabwean government introduced bond notes in November that have been met with great disdain as many Zimbabweans fear it is a step toward the reintroduction of the Zimbabwean dollar and a return to the 2009 economic crisis.
The Bitmari project seems to have been well received by the selected farmers. Phides Mazhawidza, chairwoman for the Women Farmers Land and Agriculture Trust, which helped select the farmers for the project, says the women are looking forward to helping introduce Bitcoin to Zimbabweans.
“There is excitement that women in the rural areas are now able to use smartphones and access information on agricultural finance as well as make digital payments on these phones,” she says.
“This is new, this is innovative, and we are looking forward to getting it established in our country,” she added.