Technologies for sustainable development: mind the gender gap

New technologies are advancing sustainable development in Malawi. But these technologies must be designed to meet the needs of the group most likely to use them: women. 

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Insight by 
Stella Gama
Stella Gama is deputy director of forestry at Malawi’s Ministry of Natural Resources, Energy and Environment
30 April 2018
Outstanding women in development
A series of blogs and interviews that reflect on the role, influence and impact of women in the field of sustainable development
Women using the Changu Changu Moto Fuel-Efficient Clean Cookstove, Malawi, Africa (Photo: Ripple Africa)

Women using the Changu Changu Moto Fuel-Efficient Clean Cookstove, Malawi, Africa (Photo: Ripple Africa)

New technologies have the power to unlock social, environmental and economic developments; the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) recognise that advances in technology can translate scientific knowledge into tangible benefits in our daily lives, particularly for those in the world’s poorest countries.

Innovations in technology underpin energy access, food production, water security, improvements in health and education – all of which contribute to delivering the SDGs.

How tech is supporting Malawi’s key sectors

In Malawi, technological solutions are being leveraged in many of the country’s main economic sectors: tree breeding programs that advance performance of plantation forests, improved silvicultural practices and sustainable charcoal production are supporting a more sustainable forest sector; the energy sector has embraced renewables with widespread use of energy efficient bulbs, solar lighting and heating, and energy efficient cook stoves; in agriculture, small-scale irrigation technologies and climate smart techniques have improved crop yields and boosted resilience.  

Clean cook stoves

Clean cooking technologies support all three pillars of sustainable development: social, environmental and economic. For almost 20 years, numerous programs and projects in Malawi have supported capacity building and technical know-how of production, marketing and use of clean cook stoves.

They come in different designs such as Chitetezo Mbaula and Changu Changu and deliver multiple benefits: they save money as they’re easy and cheap to make, they save time because they’re safe and cook food faster; they require less fuel so less time is spent gathering wood – while also safeguarding Malawi’s forests and reducing emissions.   

In rural areas, women, travel long distances to fetch firewood while urban poor women spend a high proportion of their income on fuel. Clean cook stoves therefore stand to make the biggest difference to women’s lives. Less time collecting fuel and cooking means women can spend more time with their children, concentrate on household responsibilities and free up time to pursue other income-generating or educational opportunities. 

But to achieve the ambition of gender equality as set out in SDG 5 – and interwoven through all the other goals – technology must be accessible to women. And this means technologies must be appropriate for women – i.e. designed to meet their needs.

While clean cook stoves are an example of a technology that has worked well in actively improving women’s lives, other technologies are being designed in laboratories with little or no consultation with women. 

Treadle pumps

One example is the treadle pump. The Malawi government advocates for greater use of treadle pumps as part of its National Irrigation Policy and development strategy.

A treadle pump is a human-powered suction pump that sits on top of a well/river bank and is used for irrigation. It is cheap and easy to operate and can be manufactured locally. It is designed to lift water from a depth of up to seven metres. Treadle pumps can boost the income of farmers working small plots of lands as they irrigate crops during the dry season. These small-scale irrigation technologies are also environmentally friendly. 

Various studies in Malawi show that using treadle pumps can boosts incomes and improves livelihoods. 

But these studies note finance barriers to accessing the pumps. They conclude that considering the income gap (women on average earn less than men) and that household consumption or expenditure varies (women’s income is spent mainly on food), treadle pumps needs to be subsidised to ensure access for women. 

The studies also highlight the physical drudgery of using the pumps – although it is not as hard as manually lifting and carrying water from a well or river, treadle pumps still require significant physical effort. 

Benson Sumani, chief irrigation officer at the Department of Irrigation told me that since the introduction the original treadle pump, manufacturers have revisited the design several times to make it less labour intensive and appropriate for women. This shows how the original designs had failed to consider women’s needs.

Closing the technology gender gap: ways forward

  • Women-led designs. Women need to be involved during the early stages of technology development so the design reflects their needs and preferences. Women’s ideas on optimising performance, access, uptake and use of technologies are paramount.
  • Outreach, awareness and education. In Malawi – and worldwide – women are less educated than men. Over the longer term, to develop gender-sensitive climate technology, we need campaigns to keep girls in school and encourage them to study science. More immediately, we need awareness and outreach activities for women and girls, demonstrating how technologies can enhance women’s livelihoods, and bring health and social benefits. 
  • Tailored training. Training in how to use and maintain new technologies must be pitched at the right level and designed recognising that illiteracy is more common in women than men and that women and men learn in different ways. Training must also be brought to women, in their communities – they will be less likely to attend training if it requires spending time away from their households and children. 
  • Global technology discourse. The big UN climate conventions should continue to mainstream women and gender in their work. 

The Convention on Biological Diversity and the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification recognised gender from the outset and we have seen much progress at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). 

This momentum must continue at the local level with gender responsive policies and actions. The UNFCCC’s Technology Executive Committee must advocate harder so people better understand gender linkages. In addition, in-country climate change management practitioners need the relevant data, gender analysis and mainstreaming tools for technology development and transfer in forestry, energy, agriculture, waste management, transport, industry and other areas.

CBA12: Local experience driving climate action will take place in Lilongwe, Malawi from 11-14 June. CBA’s well-established ‘community of practice’ will work with investors and policymakers on sharing innovation, getting climate finance behind what works and preparing robust narratives to take ‘lived experience’ from evidence to influence. Also as part of CBA12, the UNFCC and LDC Expert Group will convene the Regional National Adaptation Plans (NAP) Expo

About the author

Stella Gama is deputy director of forestry at Malawi’s Ministry of Natural Resources, Energy and Environment. She is currently lead coordinator on gender and climate change for the Least Developed Countries (LDC) Group at the UNFCCC negotiations, LDC negotiator for technology development and transfer, UNFCCC negotiator for Malawi, and LDC representative to the UNFCCC Technology Executive Committee.

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