The Future of ICT for Agriculture

At the recent ICTforAg 2017 conference, supported by Abt Associates, DAI and FHI 360, there was a lot of food for thought around how new innovations can empower smallholder farmers, and the communities that support them, through information and communication technologies (ICT). Inspired by a day of keynotes, lightning talks and group breakouts, here are some of my key takeaways on how we continue to advance digital technology to improve the agriculture sector globally:

  • Proactive Guidelines for Responsible Data Management in the ICT4Ag sector. Historically, ICTforAg and broadly ICT4D guidelines tend to be reactive, but Ana Maria Cuenca of FHI 360 and Linda Raftree of Kurante are looking to change this by developing guidelines for USAID funded programs responsible for data management. They shared three critical guidelines of responsible data management during the Responsible Data Practices for Digital Development breakout session: 1) quality data for decision making, 2) privacy rights and data security for vulnerable people and 3) transparency and accountability.
  • Mobile Money. As Chrissy Martin from USAID showed a map of all the places in DC that accept bitcoin as a currency, she surveyed the 300-person room to understand who would be happy if their employer switched to paying their salaries in bitcoin. About three people raised their hands. It was an interesting thought exercise that gave attendees perspective on what a smallholder farmer may feel when mobile money is forced upon them without a supportive ecosystem to enable use (e.g. businesses willing to accept mobile money or convert it to legal tender). To me it highlighted the importance of being customer first when implementing any sort of digital service.
  • Collecting data and incorporating it into programmatic strategy was discussed by the closing session speaker Julius Adewopo from the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture. He referenced a recent survey of agro-dealers across four states in northern Nigeria which aimed to exhaustively survey and map all existing agro-dealers who sell at least two types of maize varieties. Through crowdsourcing information, the survey reached 1,400 agro-dealers within approximately six days (a reach unattainable even within six months if they had relied on their own personnel and resources). They found that 98% of the agro-dealers were male and 60% use smartphones; which is critical data for programmatic partners to have as they implement value-chain interventions and learn how to best work with smallholder farmers, who are typically female.

Partnering with Dalberg Data Insights on Food Security Use Case

The ICT4Ag conference came at a perfect time given the recent appetite of DIAL’s D4D team to leverage data in the agriculture sector. DIAL is pleased to announce that we are partnering with Dalberg Data Insights (DDI) to implement an on-the-ground use case around using mobile and digital data to better predict food crises. We are working in Uganda, a developing country that has embraced digital technologies and is also struggling with food security as more refugees cross into its borders.

For this demonstration model, we are combining remote sensing and mobile phone data to proactively identify risks to food security at a local level.

Dalberg Data Insights
Graphic by Dalberg. Used with Permission.

Thus far, food security research has focused on the logistics of getting food to people, without having access to real-time data to predict supply/demand and ultimately fend off food crises. Thanks to the research of GPSDD and UN Global Pulse, we’re now able to mobilize around big data and food security. We are at a point where – thanks to the ongoing research over the past two years and the level of maturity of DDI’s relationships with local telecom operators –we have a strong foundation to conduct this demonstration model. However, there is also much more to learn about how to scale and sustain these kinds of efforts.

We will work with a select end user within the country (e.g. NGO focused on food security or agriculture) to develop tools and observe directly what they need/don’t need to see. We’re not doing this research in a lab or at a university, we are focused on trying to positively impact people by enhancing the decision-making of the organizations serving them.

Take a mother living in Uganda. Instead of waiting until an on-the-ground survey confirms a food shortage in her region, the humanitarian community could use digital data to proactively predict when her region might be at risk and intervene preemptively. Our hope is that this mother and her family will benefit without even knowing something is going on, they will just continue to access to food flowing into the nearby market.

Danielle Dhillon joined the Digital Impact Alliance in March 2017 as Senior Program Analyst, Data for Development. In this role, she works to demonstrate the value of a viable Data for Development (D4D) ecosystem for driving effective learning and decision-making across development programs, the public sector and the private sector.