What’s Next for eAgriculture?

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January 24, 2014

By Juan Forero, Mobile Financial Services & Commercial Manager, Grameen Foundation

Though mobile phones and other technologies hold great promise for improving lives in poor, rural communities, there is still debate about how they can best be used to improve agricultural and rural development. Last November, Grameen Foundation and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) hosted an e-forum to discuss some of the central successes and challenges of emerging and established technologies. The result was a timely dialogue that will inform discussions at the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS+10) Summit, to be held in Egypt this year.[1]

Throughout the wide-ranging exchange, several key topics came to the fore that deserve closer scrutiny in 2014: the influence of measurement, the impact of gender, and the role of public-private partnerships.

You Can’t Control what you Can’t Measure

When it comes to understanding the impact of ICT4Ag (information and communications technologies for agriculture), measurement is an essential factor in planning for success.  Recent technological developments, such as the increased use of mobile phone technology and applications by those living on less than $2.00 USD/day, combined with public data or open-data sharing platforms like GODAN (Global Open Data for Agriculture and Nutrition), are changing the way productivity and profitability are measured and communicated in agriculture. Now the focus is not only on effectively using the data which mobile technology can capture but doing so in a transparent and scalable fashion.

Questions about how to create applicable targets for monitoring progress and how to use technology intelligently continue to impact measurement. As Whitney Gantt, a program manager with Grameen Foundation in Colombia pointed out, “analyzing usage by product or content area (e.g. cattle diseases vs. chilling hub services) can help programs zero in on where to focus new content and services.”

Overall, there is a risk that a surplus of data, which does not receive proper analysis, might result in technology being seen as an ineffective tool. There are several challenges presented by data analysis and its potential may be hindered by obstacles like the definition of clear and focused indicators and the sector-wide overdependence on output indicators (rather than on outcomes). For example, the use of mobile technologies has expanded data collection and transparency to previously isolated rural areas resulting in even large quantities of data available for analysis. Grameen Foundation’s vice president for information services, Hillary Miller-Wise suggested that through strategic use of data, agricultural initiatives could better understand the connection between productivity, farmer income and technology. More in-depth analysis, like randomized controlled trials and those with an ICT focus, such as the LIRNEasia’s Teleuse@BOP studies, which define demand for, and use of these technologies by those at the Bottom of the Pyramid (BOP), could assist in establishing causality and measuring relevant indicators. Indicators like those that value chain players are focused on, are more conducive to reaching the goals of increased profitability and productivity for farmers.

Purposeful and cost-effective measurement, exemplified by the Progress out of Poverty Index case study and the BoP Impact Assessment Framework, can enhance the use of technology in smallholder farming. Ultimately, the shift away from massive output data towards more instructive and specific indicators requires a greater financial investment by donors and stakeholder commitment to collaborating with more experienced sectors (such as industry) in order to improve ICT4Ag practices at different levels of agricultural organizational models.

The Gender Factor

Another key area is engaging with those value chain stakeholders, who may traditionally be excluded from participation based on gender, age, disability, or poverty. Recently, gender mainstreaming has become a benchmark of development policy and gender equality has made considerable progress. However, as in other sectors, the implications of cross-cutting factors like gender, especially in developing countries, may affect the use and efficiency of ICT. For example, traditional cultural values may discourage women from using mobile telephones (as highlighted by Grameen Foundation and GSMA studies on this topic) or a lack of gender specific communications strategies may exclude women from accessing ICT services.

Keeping in mind the cultural dimension of gender, technology, along with relevant performance indicators and organizational models, could tackle issues at all stages of strategic planning and execution. By collaborating on initiatives that are regionally focused and culturally sensitive, the promotion of gender equality in agriculture becomes linked to productivity and sustainability.

In countries such as Colombia, women comprise a significant portion of smallholder farmers, yet their vision of agricultural production is based on family, not gender. Using a human-centred design approach and experience from Uganda, Grameen Foundation’s Community Knowledge Worker (CKW) program in Antioquia analyzes individual needs. This approach to product design works to safeguard against homogenizing users, especially women. By using behavior data, mobile financial products offered through the CKW program promote equality and sustainability because they are tailored to individual demand.

Strategic Partners

During the forum, Gerald Sylvester, Knowledge & Information Management Officer for FAO Asia-Pacific asserted that, “the key to successful initiatives lies in making effective partnerships.” While the focus of e-Agriculture remains the use of technology, face-to-face, multi-stakeholder partnerships are indispensible. These partnerships intersect all value chain activities and facilitate multi-modal delivery of agricultural services. As with gender, public-private to farmer-institution relationships depends on establishing trust, accountability, confidence and clear expectations.

An important recommendation for 2014 is the need to capitalize on private sector and government telecommunications expertise in order to support ICT4Ag in development. In Colombia, Grameen Foundation has partnered with MANÁ, Antioquia’s regional food security agency, to use the foundation’s TaroWorks™ mobile tool as a means of increasing the food security of 17,000 rural poor householders, specifically women. This partnership exemplifies the capacity of mobile technology and gender specific programs to improve agriculture practices by reducing errors in data collection, increasing the quality of information gathered, and providing the first real-time indicators that can allow families and farmers to be more productive and ultimately more food secure.

MANÁ and Grameen Foundation plan to support this strategy by profiling the capacity of family and smallholder farming to improve food security and nutrition, achieve sustainable development and manage natural resources, as well as to eradicate hunger and poverty.

Moving Forward Towards Better Agriculture

An increased focus on e-agriculture comes as the world recognizes 2014 as the International Year of Family Farming (as designated by the United Nations). The application of ICT to challenges in agricultural development must be tempered by holistic thinking: though technology can improve measurement of outputs and outcomes and assist in creating gender equality and building strategic partnerships, by itself it is not enough. By utilizing ICT in combination with other approaches, like traditional technology (radio) and personal relationship building, more can be achieved.

Based on Grameen Foundation’s experience using ICT as a tool for development and agriculture, especially in Uganda and Colombia, it is evident that technology, especially that which improves connection and communication, can augment human-centred strategy in order improve the lives of rural smallholder farmers and reduce poverty. This year is an exciting time to participate in in the ICT4Ag movement and make an impact on agriculture worldwide.   

1. In 2014 and 2015 reviews of our successes and failures in improving agricultural and rural development with ICT will be part of the WSIS+10 events and the MDG review. For more information visit http://www.itu.int/wsis/review/2013.html

Comments

I would like to thank Caroline Hemstock, William Neuheisel and Liselle Yorke for their great contributions to this article. This e-forum on e-agriculture would have not been possible without the talented and passionate experts who actively participated in the discussions and without the guidance from Michael Riggs from FAO.

Yes, ICT as a tool for agricultural & rural development is good not only for Uganda & Colombia, but to whole developing world, where poor connectivity has been a big constraint.

Wonderful. Noble Initiative. How can we deploy this technology for over 30 million farmers in the rural areas of Nigeria.

How can we colaborate?

Thank you.

email: buchi [at] sharonsystems.com

Information & Communication Technonology/Leadership consultant. Lagos Nigeria.

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