Labour-saving tools have been advocated as critical to increasing production and improving the quality of life of rural Africans. The impacts of these tools have not been evaluated using a gender perspective for determining social and technical change. Many technology development efforts have assumed that women would benefit if designs simply took into account women’s roles.
The forage chopper is one such technology that was developed by the National Agricultural Research Organisation (NARO), Uganda with a focus on reducing women’s workload in forage processing. During the development stage, the design team assumed that by taking women’s roles in livestock production into consideration, this would guarantee their use and reduce the labour and time women spend in forage processing.
An in-depth qualitative evaluation was employed to explore how the household of smallholder dairy farmers of Masaka District, in Uganda interacted with the chopper when it was introduced in their social milieu. Results of this participatory technology design process resulted in the forage chopper being redesigned to incorporate simple adjustments and modifications that facilitated usage of and access to the machine. Participatory design of such tools not only benefitted their principal users, women, but also the other members of the household.
Targeting women with a device is, in itself, not enough to guarantee that women will benefit – let alone lead to empowerment. Unanticipated dynamics related to the roles of artisan welders and carpenters in the socio-technical system of rural farmers were discovered and opened new avenues for future research. The findings present evidence that the empowerment of women with labour saving tools requires that the design process be grounded not only in engineering but also in the sociology of gender, through interdisciplinary research teams able to grasp the reality of the context within which women operate. And instead of focusing exclusively on women, technology development should focus more on the social and material context of the target households.