Long time no blog post! 2 months and half since my last one on Open Government Data in Developing countries! I hoped to write one article per month. This sounds a small commitment but hard to keep. The problem is not really lack of content or ideas but time!
Anyway, I want to write today on one of my preferred topic: ICT and Agriculture. I’m definitely a technologist, but, despite an only background on technology, I’m, since very long time, more interested in understanding people and social and economic development. Agriculture and Education have been two areas of interest since more than 15 years and since I travel all around the world, for personal interest, and witness how people are living, and learn how they are addressing their challenges in their daily activities. It happens that recently, well since 7 years or so, I could merge these two elements in my professional career. I was very lucky to make a personal interest fitting with my professional background, and I’ve been enjoying this work in a way I couldn’t imagine a job could appeal to me.
That said, technology and social and economic development put together in a sentence seems to say that they are at the same level. It is not the case at all. My friend Ken Banks summarized it very well in his recent post “An Inconvenient truth” where he stated: “Mobile is still largely seen as a solution, not a tool”. This is exactly the problem. Most of my technologist colleagues are convinced that technology and mobiles are a great solution, and they are always looking for problems to solve to demonstrate the original axiom! Most of the articles I read in the ICT4D or M4D domain are always structured the same way: mobile are great for social and economic development, here are the evidences in this small pilot. I feel that there are far less articles (almost none) that would say something like: here is the problem we had, and here is the way we tried to solve it, and mobile were helpful here in that part of the challenge. Technology and mobiles are not (will never be) the magic bullet that would solve all the issues a given community or a given sector is facing, but only one element that can help on specific barriers. I’m sure this is very obvious to everybody from an intellectual standpoint, but very rarely addressed this way.
Anyway, that’s enough for the introduction! In this post, I wanted to share my view (and experience) on some of the issues that farmers in rural areas are facing and where mobiles can possibly help. This based on a few projects I’ve been implementing in Mali and India, plus few others I advised in few other countries (Burkina Faso, Ghana, Kenya, Vietnam, etc.).
Obviously, I can only stay at a generic level, even if I discovered long time ago that there is no generic solution. In each project, in each country, the issues are very specific. It depends on the product, the market, the structure of the sector, the structure of the community of farmers, etc. Just to illustrate this few examples: I’ve been working with shea butter producers in Mali, and the problem of shea butter in Mali has nothing to do with the problem of shea butter in Ghana, Burkina or Senegal. In Mali, the sector is not structured, the quality is problematic, and the value chain is not very well functioning with very little international buyers etc. In Ghana, Burkina or Senegal, this is totally different where the sector is strongly structured. In the same way, within a country, different crops have different challenges: sometimes the problem is matching demand and offer (a product is produced in a place where there is no demand, while there is a huge demand in other places), sometimes the problem is aggregation (e.g. buyers buy in tons, producers produce in kilos), etc. Extension service also varies a lot. In some places, extension service is weak: each extension agent is covering a huge areas and a huge number of farmers and there can only provide limited support. In some places, there are lots of extension agents, but they have weak expertise, and they need support themselves. Those are just examples to say that here again, there is no magic bullet. When I read sometimes things likes “XYZ mobile-based system will solve farmer market access issues”, I don’t know if I should laugh or cry. If there was one market access problem for farmers all over the World or just even in one country across crops and regions, this would be VERY easy to solve.
That said, there are strategies that are applicable in a relatively wide context. These strategies can be separated in two categories that I call direct and indirect. What I call “Direct” is when technology/applications are directly deployed at the farmer level. “Indirect” is when technology is not targeting farmers directly but other actors that are essentials in the agriculture ecosystem around farmers.
In the case of “direct” strategies, the key question is to understand which technologies are accessible/usable by farmers. In the case of “indirect” strategies, the key question is to understand who the key actors are to leverage impact at the farmer level.
In the case of direct strategies, the vast majority of initiatives has been focusing on SMS-based system with, IMHO, very little success. The rationale of focusing on SMS is obvious: it is available on all phones and network, and very easy to deploy. The reasons of failure are also very obvious: in most countries, farmers are not able to use the SMS functionality of their phone. Sometimes it is because of illiteracy, sometimes it is because of awareness/training on the how to use the functionality on their phone, sometimes it is because of using a phone keypad to write a message… but at the end of the day, the results are here, and very well underlined in the report Maximizing Mobile published by the World Bank earlier this year. If one looks at the country table, there is now a new indicator (at least first time I’m seeing this) that shows the percentage of mobile users who have ever used the SMS functionality on their phone. E.g. in Burundi, 25% globally. In India, 49% globally. Given that small-scale farmers are at the bottom of the low-income group, one can imagine the usage rate at their level with such percentage at the country-wide level. To be fair, there are also huge variations between countries. Kenya for instance has a rate of 89% surely partly due to m-Pesa. It is therefore likely that a SMS-based service is Kenya is able to reach a bigger part of the farmers compared to e.g. Burundi or India.
The failure of such approaches pushed most of application providers to move to indirect strategies through intermediaries (see below). However, since a couple of years, a new approach is emerging with voice-based (IVR) systems, which are more accessible to farmers, if carefully designed from a user interface perspective and from a business perspective. There are still only few experiments in this area, and I believe we’ve been, with my colleagues, pioneers in that area with our current work in Mali and India. More and more organizations are now investigating this area, but it is still quite embryonic for now (and the subject of a future post!).
PS: I’ve focused here on mobile-based systems. There are other approaches, in particular using participatory video (see e.g. Digital Green), which is for me on the edge of ICT.
Now, let’s have a look at the indirect strategies, where ICT and mobiles can support actors working in the local ecosystem. In the different projects I worked on or studied, I’ve identified at least three types of intermediaries, with different opportunities and challenges.
The first type is a community-based intermediary that is literate (usually both text-literate and minimally ICT-literate). This person is the contact point for farmers to provide or receive information. This is the case I mentioned in the previous paragraph of SMS-based systems that have been deployed in few countries. The applications are not directly usable by the farmers but it is possible to find someone in the community that can serve as proxy. To date, to the best of my knowledge, those approaches have largely failed. The major reason of failure is due to the fact that such intermediary position is usually far from being a full-time job, and the incentive for the intermediaries are usually low, while they are the critical element in the overall architecture. We have experience this type of systems in Mali and have witness this kind of issues. We also witnessed other issues such as gender, where literate intermediaries are usually men and in our case the producers were mainly women. The only real case of success for me is the case of Grameen Foundation’s Community Knowledge Workers (CKW) in Uganda. It is a success in terms of operations. CKW are active and are serving, supporting and helping farmers in their community. The failure here is not really on impact, but more on business. Grameen Foundation has invested/raised millions of dollars in the last 4 years or so, and the overall architecture seems still far from breaking even. The solution is obvious and is about enriching the set of services provided by CKW to increase the income, but the implementation is relatively hard. Hopefully, in few years time, Grameen will succeed, and this will be an interesting reference, but it is not the case yet.
The second option is an organizational intermediary. This is the case where farmers are already structured in e.g. cooperatives or where there is a well-developed extension service. Usually such existing cooperatives are efficient in self-management (connecting members between them). The managers of cooperatives are also usually middle-class educated person that can be trained to use ICT, and (s)he serves as the ICT proxy to provide and retrieve information in systems: sharing issues, expertise requirements, trading offers, etc. These types of solutions work well in structured communities/sectors. Technology in that case is supporting an organizational structure that is already efficient. Making a structure in place more efficient with new tools like mobiles is far far far easier than changing or setting-up a new structure. Here again, this is obvious when quite often overlooked if you take the wrong angle when tackling the problem. If to use a tool you need to change the way an organization is structured, there are great chances that the tool is irrelevant to the context.
The last option for intermediaries is what I call news-proxy, where ICT empowers organizations that are source of news to farmers. Here the idea is to enable community radios with ICT and allow them to be the relay for information to farmers, as well as collector of information. Like for the previous setup, the link between people and their community radio is already in place, so it makes things easier. The big advantage of such solutions is that the community radio network is huge all over Africa. I had the impression when I started to work with community radio stations about 2 years ago that for lots of people (funders, development agencies, etc.) community radio was old-school, and now mobile is the new revolution. This is a major mistake IMHO. There is a perfect complementarity between community radio stations and mobile. Hopefully, things are starting to change. My friends at Farm Radio International are doing a great job in that area, and I see a growing interest in that kind of approaches (empowering community radio with ICT for the benefits of their listeners). See e.g. recent USAID initiative on “Interactive Radio for Agricultural Development Projects“.
It is interesting to note that the fact that USB data dongles are now more widely available makes things relatively easy to deploy. But there are still lots of places where community radio stations don’t have computers, or are not covered by a mobile data service. In that case the only option is to rely on mobile telephony and voice services: using voice-based services to connect radio stations to the Web where they can get and put information.
Obviously, splitting strategies between direct and indirect is artificial and all these approaches are complementary and can be mixed to build a complete ecosystem of services for farmers.