Blog Post

Scaling Up ICTs for Agriculture

Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) have vast potential for improving agriculture and food security and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). ICTs can contribute to agriculture in a variety of ways, from helping farmers get fair prices for their produce to increasing agricultural yields. However, while these technologies have the potential to help hundreds of millions of smallholder farmers and stakeholders in rural areas, there remain important limitations to uptake, such as poor Internet connections, high illiteracy rates, and the lack of long-term funding for ICT programs and infrastructure. Understanding the extent of such challenges, as well as pathways to successfully overcome them, will be key in helping to increase ICT adoption in developing countries.

To address these concerns, the Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA) has conducted in a range of projects, covered in a new booklet , that highlight the potential for long-term and scaled-up use of ICTs for agriculture. Stakeholders in these projects include government and farm extension workers, farmer cooperatives, processors and vendors, ministries of agriculture and water resources, academia and the European Space Agency.

What becomes clear from the case studies covered in the booklet is the need to support activities along the whole agricultural value chain in order to strengthen the agricultural system as a whole and increase farmers’ resilience to shocks from production through marketing.

In Ghana, Geographic information system (GIS) software is being used to help farmers navigate the complicated labyrinth of organic certification. While organic farming can help farmers increase their profits and reduce their exposure to dangerous pesticides, accurately mapping and surveying of farms to apply and qualify for organic certification can be time-consuming and difficult. In 2014-2015, a private company called Syecomp partnered with CTA to develop the eFarms app, a geospatial mapping service. This service allows for easy, accurate land surveying through the use of hand-held GPS units; this GPS data is used to create accurate maps of farmers’ land that can be accessed from a mobile phone. So far, 440 farms in Ghana have been mapped, allowing many of them to become organic-certified and to expand their production. The service also has other potential uses, including helping farmers assess the amount of agricultural inputs and labor they need, provide proof of collateral for bank loans, and file crop insurance claims. According to the CTA booklet, farmers’ organizations throughout Ghana have also expressed interest in collaborating with Syecomp to use the app to improve their negotiating power. Syecomp also uses eFarms to serve agricultural input firms by providing cluster maps and matching them with potential farm clients.

A second case study illustrates how using digital data can create fair trade for food producers in West and Central Africa, primarily Burkina Faso, Côte d'Ivoire, and Mali. Two NGOs, RONGEAD (based in France) and N’Kalô (based in West Africa) have developed an SMS service that provides market data and other information to farmers and agricultural stakeholders, including exporters. By providing regularly updated market prices, the service gives farmers and other stakeholders the ability to plan their buying, selling, and storage activities. The accuracy and transparency of the data provided has increased use since its launch in 2008. Across the three study countries, the program has trained 8,000 people in how to promote the benefits of the service to over 50,000 smallholder famers, many of whom are illiterate, using illustrations and cartoons. The benefits of the program’s whole-value-chain approach are becoming increasingly recognized, and RONGEAD and N’Kalô are currently being expanded to contribute to national strategies and policymaking.

In Uganda, training on digital finance and mobile banking is helping farmers access financial tools. MOBIS is a mobile money product created by the company Ensibuuko to link farmers to community rural finance service providers know as savings and credit cooperatives (SACCOs).  The product now bundles several applications into one product, including a mobile wallet, a management information system (MIS) for SACCOs, training on digital finance, and a portal for farmers to manage their personal finances. The Ministry of Trade, Industry and Cooperatives (MTIC), which has its own SACCO offering banking services to its staff, has adopted MOBIS, and Ensibuuko has also started partnering with Airtel Uganda, a domestic telecom company, to overcome Internet connectivity issues that were impacting adoption rates. Airtel provided special SIM cards that gave farmers cloud-enabled access to the Ensibuuko products, providing security and accessibility. Training and information campaigns have also increased uptake of the apps; for example, the Allied SACCO trained 25 staff members to run trainings in their local communities, and 15,000 Allied farmers have now subscribed to MOBIS.

A fourth case study looks at another program in Ghana that focuses increasing information and services available to female farmers. In Ghana, women own only one in ten larger farms (over two hectares). In addition, while women produce nearly half of the food grown in the country, they are consistently left out of land-ownership provisions. As a result, female farmers are at an increased risk of losing their source of food, income, and shelter.  The MERGDATA service, launched by Farmerline, provides women farmers with agricultural information via voice calls in local languages, four days per week. The messages include weather forecasts, agricultural extension advice, and market price information; these messages help advise women to maximize yields and get the best prices for their produce. If women have questions about the information, an in-house expert at the Farmerline Centre will take their call and provide further advice.  The program also offers the ability to create message groups for particular villages or for farmers growing the same crop. MERGDATA also provides data collection and traceability tools for food companies, governments, agribusinesses, and other stakeholders working with farmers. This helps these entities better manage their network of over 200,000 smallholder farmers and the entire supply chain across Cameroon, Ghana, Malawi, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone. Because the program utilizes existing agricultural extension services, scaling up to additional countries and farmers is anticipated be cost-effective and sustainable, according to the CTA report.

CTA has also launched a new database of hundreds of ICTs for agriculture applications, which maps the apps along the entire value chain. These projects can provide important information regarding what works, what does not, and ways forward to increase the use of ICTs in agriculture.

By: Jenn Campus