Designing ICTs for Increasing Smallholder Farmers' Access to Markets and Knowledge

2009

This project is sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Background & Rationale

The 2008 World Development Report identifies agriculture as the primary engine for economic growth and poverty reduction in the agriculture-based developing economies. This applies to most of sub-Saharan Africa where two-thirds of the population works in agriculture, mainly as small holder farmers, and where the rural poverty rate exceeds 80 percent and the number of poor is still rising. Indeed only in sub-Saharan Africa is self-employment in agriculture by far the dominant activity for the rural labor force, particularly for women.

The productivity of sub-Saharan agriculture lags far behind the rest of the developing world: cereal yields in East Asia,for example, increased 2.8 percent a year between 1961 and 2004 as a result of improved crop varieties, widespread irrigation, and fertilizer use. Other developing regions have experienced similar, if less dramatic, increases in productivity. In sub-Saharan Africa. by contrast, the use of modern inputs like improved cereal varieties, irrigation, fertilizer, and water management lags far behind-and productivity has stagnated. Although the causes are multiple and interrelated-underinvestment in agricultural research, poor infrastructure, the small size of farms, ill-defined property rights, lack of capital or access to credit, weak local institutions-it is clear that these small-holders are often not aware of agricultural best practices and lack opportunities to share information with peers, suppliers, and customers.

Improvements have been made in traditional state-led extension systems by promoting the formation of user groups and by calling on private sector providers. A well-known example of such progress is the NAADS program in Uganda, with replicas in several other sub-Saharan Africa countries. Yet few of these extension systems make use of available Information and Communication Technologies (lCTs). Major quantum jumps in efficiency could be achieved through two complementary uses of cellular phone communications and services: improved access for farmers to sources of public and private information, and improved horizontal farmer-to-farmer exchange of information on learning-by-doing. There is potential for significant and rapid gains in the diffusion and adoption of technology by inserting effective ICT systems in better performing existing extension systems. How to best do this would be the object of experiments to define approaches for both vertical and horizontals flows of information leading to greater technology adoption by farmers.

Among the high-potential applications of ICTs:

  • Relevant, interactive and searchable digital libraries regarding priority crops can be made accessible to women and men small-holder farmers via various information channels — including IVR, web, SMS, VoIP, community radio, etc.
  • The use of ICTs to collect, aggregate and make available the vast tacit knowledge of small-scale farmers.
  • The use of lCTs by extension and capacity-building agencies to communicate with farmers and by farmers and extension officers to communicate with one another.
  • ICTs and associated organizational strategies can enhance the success of new, demand-driven agricultural extension systems (for example, Uganda's NMOS).
  • Low-cost and accessible information-based precision farming tools can facilitate farmers transitioning to higher value and premium crops.

Project Objective

To identify 3-5 innovative and appropriate ICT-enabled,farmer-focused knowledge management systems with significant potential for large-scale impact

This project will identify needs and define opportunities through which innovative information and communication technology (ICT)-based applications and systems can increase agricultural small-holder productivity, profitability, and sustainability. More specifically, the project will work with on-the-ground practitioners to identify opportunities to design or reinforce peer-to-peer communication networks and facilitate information flows between the holders of knowledge and those who can benefit from it. The identified opportunities, likely to rely heavily on mobile phones, will have the potential to enhance or supplement existing government and supplier-based agricultural extension, farmer education programs, and peer information exchange systems.

Development experts agree that small-holder farming systems in Africa have failed to achieve economically attainable levels of productivity and profitability in large part because of information and skills gaps that constrains the adoption of available technologies and management practices, and/or reduces their efficiency when adopted. Access to knowledge has been shown to enhance productivity and profitability. This project is a first step in addressing this gap by identifying specific ICT-based information services and knowledge management systems appropriate to the African context. An advantage of this approach is that the economic gains available from efficient information management systems can often be achieved within existing institutional structures-and hence promise relatively speedy as well as potentially large impacts that can be scaled up and replicated through these existing structures.

Project Plan

We will identify partners in Africa currently engaged in programs to enhance small holder farmer productivity and income through the development/improvement of knowledge systems. These could be government, NGO,  or private-sector actors involved in:

  • agriculture extension/education programs
  • crop-specific development projects
  • efforts to transition farmers to higher value market crops
  • introduction of alternative sustainable production technologies
  • supply chain development related to certification as "organic" or "fair trade"
  • etc.

The main objective of the project is to identify applications and systems relevant to small-scale farmers in sub-Saharan Africa. Partners using such technologies in Central America and India will also be included. The intent in including them is to learn about the process of information system-focused ICT innovation from their experiences and to identify systems with potential for successful adaptation to the African context.

Field Work

Four to five multidisciplinary teams of 2-3 graduate students each, guided by a faculty or a qualified staff member, will travel to Africa, India, and Central America. The primary focus of the teams will be to work with 1-2 partner organizations to:

  • Learn from their past/existing efforts to increase farmer-to-farmer networking and information collection and access, with or without ICTs
  • Identify current, planned, or new activities in which the use of ICTs could potentially enhance effectiveness, efficiency, or reach of networking and information access activities
  • Develop high-level design specification (or alternative specifications) for such applications/systems
  • Collect data to assist with high-level analysis of the potential impact, sustainability and scalability ofthe proposed opportunity, including but not limited to:
    • Potential demand and willingness to pay for the application/system
    • Potential impact on productivity and incomes of the poorest farmers — those living on $2/day or less;
    • Relative impact on the roles, status, access to resources, empowerment, and livelihoods of women and girls as well as men and boys;
    • Capacity and interest of partner organization or business to implement, maintain, and sustain the application
    • Potential for scaling up and replication in different contexts across sub-Saharan Africa and beyond

The project leadership team includes AnnaLee Saxenian, dean, School of Information; Professor Alain de Janvry, Department of Agricultural Economics; Professor Tapan Parikh, School of Information; and George Scharffenberger, Special Assistant to the Vice Chancellor for Research for International Development

Researcher(s): 
AnnaLee Saxenian
Researcher(s): 
Tapan Parikh