ICTs for Agriculture: Way Forward
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Last week, a panel of global and regional experts joined the Africa south of the Sahara Food Security Portal for a virtual dialogue on ICT use in African agriculture.  The dialogue centered on four main discussion questions:

  1. What features of mobile phones have made them so popular and so effective? What can we learn from the use of mobile phones to improve the use of other ICTs for development?
  2. How can stakeholders in both the private and the public sector ensure that ICTs like mobile phones remain financially sustainable?  
  3. What kind of data is most relevant for rural households? Is this data already being collected?
  4. How can ICT platforms, specifically mobile phones, better support agriculture, food and nutrition security, and early warning systems?  

The expert panel included:

  • Shaun Ferris, Catholic Relief Services, Director of Agricultural Livelihoods
  • Michael Humber, University of Maryland/GEOGLAM, Senior Faculty Specialist
  • MaryLucy Oronje, CABI/Plantwise, Knowledge Bank Coordinator, East Africa
  • Benjamin Addom, CTA, ICTD Program Coordinator
  • Jenny Aker, Tufts University, Associate Professor
  • Mercyline Kamande, Mount Kenya University, Senior Lecturer
  • Charles Steinfield, Michigan State University, Professor

Dr. Summer Allen of IFPRI acted as facilitator. In addition, Drs. Berber Kramer, Alan de Brauw, Teunis van Rheenen, and Eduardo Nakasone of IFPRI and Dr. Saverio Romero of Beecham Research (a private sector technology market research company) joined the discussion.

At the start of the conversation, Dr. Shaun Ferris of Catholic Relief Services highlighted what he saw as the driving factor behind the explosive success of mobile phone technology in Africa – namely, the demand for and value of low-cost communication. He emphasized that many farmers achieve “phone literacy” before achieving basic literacy and that, unlike previous technologies like radio, mobile phones allow farmers to organize and share information among themselves. In addition, even the most basic mobile phones have multiple uses, including receiving market price and weather information, meaning that farmers who make the investment in a mobile phone and SIM card receive a lot of bang for their buck.

Dr. Jenny Aker of Tufts University provided a summary of how important lessons learned from the adoption of simple mobile phones can be applied to other technologies:

1.       Mobile phones can serve multiple purposes. This means that mobile phones offer a plethora of economic and social benefits, from keeping in contact with friends and family to obtaining up-to-date local price and labor market information.

2.       Many of the benefits of mobile phones are immediate, meaning that farmers and rural populations can quickly see and decide about the value added by this technology.

3.       Mobile phone technology is easy to use.

4.       Mobile phones can be shared and can benefit multiple people, even those who do not own the phone itself (i.e. through information-sharing).

5.        Mobile phone technology can adapt to local contexts without requiring populations to drastically change their agricultural, social, or cultural practices.

6.       Mobile phone-related services, including SIM cards and charging stations, have expanded into rural areas throughout Africa, increasing the accessibility, and therefore the adoption, of the technology. In addition, pre-paid services allow users to buy just the necessary amount of service as they need it, making the technology more affordable for credit-constrained users.

These issues of affordability and accessibility formed a major theme throughout the dialogue. Dr. Mercyline Kamande of Mount Kenya University discussed how the adoption of ICTs in Rwanda and Kenya has been increased through government subsidization of Internet services, as well as by zero rating (tax-exemptions) for ICT hardware (such as mobile phones and tablets). Dr. MaryLucy Oronje of Plantwise echoed the importance of zero rating, stating that this can help draw down the initial cost of mobile technologies and accessories, thus enhancing the likelihood that ICTs will be adopted by a wider swathe of the population. She also suggested that some type of subsidy could be extended to additional services such as insurance and data costs in order to make maintenance more affordable and thus help ICT use be more sustainable over the long term. This would require private sector companies and government actors to work together to set up flexible rates that would both allow ICTs to be profitable and ensure their continued use as an important public good.

Dr. Benjamin Addom of CTA called for more coordinated effort among all stakeholders – donors, governments, and the private sector –  to make funding for ICT programs more sustainable; he emphasized that while farmers are often willing to pay for good quality seeds or fertilizers, they are often less willing to pay for information services. Dr. Addom suggested that in addition to a large initial investment (“seed money”), ICT programs need a solid business model to transition into a financially viable, long-term program, as well as a plan to educate farmers about the value of ICT products and services. While farmers are being educated, other stakeholders may need to take responsibility for paying for those services – such as private sector agribusinesses who profit from farmers’ produce.

The issue of who should pay for the information disseminated to farmers through ICTs (farmers themselves as in a standard business model, the government and private sector actors as a public good, or some combination of the two) appears to be particularly important in the design of ICT programs. Dr. Oronje highlighted the usefulness of the Plantwise project, in which extension officers have been able to deliver targeted agricultural extension information and services to a broad range of farmers through the use of ICTs; the program has also enabled farmers to reach out to extension workers themselves (making extension services more demand-driven), as well as to their fellow farmers to share information even further. She emphasized that in many African countries, extension services are a public good and are provided to farmers at no cost; this may prevent private sector companies from wanting to get involved in the provision of agricultural information and services through their platforms, as many farmers may not be willing to pay for information through the use of personal ICTs that they may be able to receive for free (although less conveniently) from agricultural extension workers. Dr.

Experts and participants also discussed the use of videos to make the information provided through ICTs more accessible and relevant for rural farmers. This idea of “edu-tainment” – the dissemination of informative content through an entertaining platform – has grown in popularity in recent years. Several examples of programs to disseminate agricultural or health-related information via video were provided, including the work of AgroInsight, IFPRI, MSU, and Digital Green.

One particularly interesting point to arise out of the discussion of video use was the issue of hyper-local vs generalized content. For example, Digital Green uses a participatory approach in their videos, using local farmers to shoot and edit the videos and then engaging in local screenings so villages can discuss the videos in their local languages. Dr. Charles Steinfield highlighted some recent work in which MSU uses local farmers to develop storyboards for their videos and improvise the scripts to tell their own personal stories. These approaches can help better reflect the “on the ground” situation in specific locations, including the local language and cultural norms, but can be time-consuming and cost-prohibitive. 

However, Dr. Eduardo Nakasone of IFPRI noted that this participatory, hyper-localized approach to video content can be much more expensive than broader, more generalized instructional videos that can be re-used in many different areas. Thus, localized content, while it may be more relevant for farmers, may also restrict the number of people a program can reach. Dr. Steinfield agreed with this point, stating that the MSU videos have proven relatively difficult to scale up and suggesting that local videos could be paired with existing in-person extension services to ensure that farmers are able to quickly and effectively act on the advice provided in the videos. He provided an example from recent work in Kenya, in which videos (in the local language and shown in local churches and schools) were paired with village-based advisors who reinforced the videos’ messages and who were able to provide access to the inputs discussed. The issue of the cost-effectiveness of hyper-local content vs generalized content was highlighted as an area that needs further study.

When it comes to what types of data are needed by farmers and whether that data is currently being collected, several people highlighted the importance of bi-directional data flow (both to and from the farm households).  Drs. Berber Kramer of IFPRI, Michael Humber of the University of Maryland, and Shaun Ferris of Catholic Relief Services all emphasized that farmers themselves have an important role to play in data collection. Farmers have important knowledge regarding agricultural and labor conditions in their own area, so one way in which ICTs could be used is to help farmers better organize, manage, and share that knowledge with other farmers and with researchers and government agencies. For example, Dr. Kramer highlighted a project in which she was involved in India that asked farmers to regularly photograph their farm plots; farmers reported that this improved their agricultural management practices because they had a better way of monitoring and tracking what was happening in their fields.  

Dr. Summer Allen noted that it could be good to emphasize information that will increase farmers’ resilience to production or markets shocks; she noted that sending SMS messages to producers is relatively cheap and could be done in exchange for responses to a few production questions or for other information needed from the household.

Dr. Kamande suggested that more data is needed on available post-harvest services and practices. Dr. Nakasone highlighted ongoing work through Scientific Animations without Borders (SAWBO) to produce videos (freely available on YouTube) to teach farmers proper post-harvest handling techniques to reduce post-harvest losses.

The discussion also brought up several examples of flaws within existing ICT-for-development programs. For example, Dr. Steinfield discussed the m-Farm program, which helps farmers in Kenya access local market information and connect directly with potential buyers via SMS and mobile app. While m-Farm has often been held up as a success story in terms of providing farmers with quick, easy access to market information, Dr. Steinfield’s recent work has found that awareness and use of the platform remains low in rural areas. He explained that these results appear to be due to a lack of training for farmers regarding how to use the platform and a lack of financial sustainability (many farmers did not have money on their SIM card at any given time and thus could not use their phones to access the market information). He suggested that in order to better build farmers’ competency with mobile phones and other ICTs, training should include a focus on understanding and managing service agreements, including how to subscribe and unsubscribe from more expensive service plans.

The dialogue concluded with several areas for further research, including the cost-effectiveness of local vs general content (as discussed previously) and the effective use of satellite data.  There seems to be joint interest in evaluating how diverse players (including public and private sector) can be aligned in an efficient way to deliver the most relevant ICTs for producers to increase food security and nutrition.  The outstanding issues discussed will build into a symposium on mobile and satellite data for food security later this year. 

By: Sara Gustafson, IFPRI

Photo credit:IICD