Ahmini, an application to protect Tunisian women farm workers

The measure should help more than 500,000 workers whose daily income is only $3.
Sunday 19/05/2019
Serious challenges. A Tunisian woman picks tomatoes in a field in Menzel Mhiri in Kairouan.   (AFP)
Serious challenges. A Tunisian woman picks tomatoes in a field in Menzel Mhiri in Kairouan. (AFP)

TUNIS - The Tunisian government has introduced a programme to integrate female agricultural workers into the social security system so they can benefit from government health services and pensions.

The measure should help more than 500,000 workers whose daily income is only $3. A digital application called Ahmini (“Protect Me”) was designed to enable female agricultural workers to register online in the public health system without the need for an employer and at the cost of 20 US cents a day.

The move, however, may run into technical difficulties since it targets women many of whom are inexperienced in dealing with computer applications. Overcoming poor internet coverage in rural Tunisia could pose a serious challenge for the service.

The government estimated that 90% of female farm workers have no social security coverage. To address the situation, computer engineer Maher Khelifi developed Ahmini to enable rural women to access social and health coverage.

Khelifi said the target population of the programme was mainly female field workers. Ahmini is meant to allow them to access free health services from the national health insurance fund for themselves and their families.

Women in rural Tunisia will be able to access the Tunisian National Social Security Fund and pay monthly membership fees online. In the initial stage of the programme, company agents are to contact, visit, register and train rural women. Following that, membership fees could be paid through a phone application.

The Tunisian government signed an agreement with Khelifi’s company as part of the implementation of the National Strategy for Economic and Social Empowerment of Women and Girls in Rural Areas initiative.

Khelifi, a 32-year-old activist, said he came up with the idea of the project after watching how women were travelling long distances in search of work “and even begging farmers to employ them. They work long hours with no protection from the rain, winds or extreme heat.”

He pointed out that rural women in Tunisia contribute by a huge margin to Tunisia’s food production and yet they have no job guarantees or health coverage. Khelifi said there was no legislation that protects the material and pecuniary rights of the women nor do they have access to social security coverage.

Khelifi created a digital platform to change legislation that does not provide protection for women working in the agriculture sector and replace it with legal frameworks for that kind of work.

The platform for the registration of rural women in the social security system was awarded first place in a local competition for best business initiative by young entrepreneurs. The project gained support from the Tunisian Ministry of Women’s Affairs, which motivated him to discuss the project with telecommunications companies.

Tunisia is far from attaining international standards in terms of internet speed, communication networks and digital coverage, despite that more than 7 million Tunisians have at least one computer or smartphone.

So, a digital application aimed at Tunisian female farm workers, who may not have experience with digital applications, begs the question of how to target the people meant to use the service from “non-smart” areas.

Most of Tunisia’s rural areas are out of the reach of internet access and even mobile phone signals because neither the government nor the private sector has invested in the infrastructure in those parts of the country. So, how can the inhabitants of digitally isolated regions benefit from such applications?

In 1991, Tunisia became the first Arab country to connect to the internet. It is also ranked third in Africa in terms of internet access.  However, internet speeds remain slow and there is no obvious intention to address this problem.

The telecommunications sector in Tunisia is lacking in services and coverage, despite the presence of two foreign operators — Ooredoo and Orange — in addition to national operator Tunisie Telecom.

The foreign telecommunications investors were expected to shore up governmental efforts to develop the telecommunication and internet infrastructure and provide coverage in isolated areas of Tunisia. That has not been the case, however, as foreign investors focus on building their own infrastructures in urban areas, hardly touching rural areas.

Such technical issues may affect the Ahmini project but the application is a glimmer of hope for many female agricultural women who aspire to better living conditions.