Thanks to the increasingly ease of use of ICTs and the overall reduction of cost of technology, the application of ICTs is becoming mature in a myriad of different sectors connected to global development initiatives. Whether a few years ago such applications were the domain of single pioneers from different disciplines, and all these initiatives were grouped under the umbrella of ICT4D, there is now a growing maturity in the application of ICTs in specific sectors. Agriculture is among the sectors (along with health, education and banking) now driving such trend: the application of ICTs in agriculture is gaining momentum, not only in the Global Development field. The private sector is also recognizing the great potential offered by applying top-notch information technologies into this field.
Agriculture is an activity being highly characterized by the specific localities: two corn fields can show different behaviors even with a limited geographic distance between them, because of variations in climate and soil composition as well as because of the different interactions with the fields and their farmers. Agriculture is thus a highly knowledge-intensive activity. With this in mind, it seems logic to promote the application of applications able to store, transform and communicate data and information linked with agricultural production – which is exactly the idea behind the application of ICT for Development in Agriculture. Nevertheless, it is not that easy to have the main stakeholders’ buy-in, especially in developing and emerging regions. If you ask a farmer what is limiting his/her productivity they will likely point their fingers towards financial credit and infrastructural gaps (typically water-related ones). This confirms that technology – broadly in ICT4D, and particularly in ICT4D in agriculture- is rarely the limiting factor to catalyze positive change.
Interestingly, there is a variety of examples where ICTs are having a deep impact on agriculture already. ICTs helped smallholder farmers in reaching the information they needed at the three key different stages of the business process: pre-harvest (e.g. crop selection information via remote advisors), cropping and harvesting (e.g. pest management techniques via blog), and post-harvest (e.g. marketing via ad hoc web platforms). Here is an old 'mind map' I had prepared to graphically sketch the possible applications at these three stages.
This is a more recent and nicest graph from Deloitte , showing the possible solutions at different stages of crop lifecycle.
When thinking about specific applications, a common-referred case is that of farmers receiving crop prices via SMS - but that is really just a thin slice of the whole data and information exchange already happening among and with farmers. A variety of applications were developed to provide farmers with the information they need to improve farm management – e.g. iCow for cattle farmers in Kenya). New channels were established to provide access to credit (e.g. SMART Money and GCASH in the Philippines, FarmDrive in Kenya) and e-payment to the unbanked (e.g. Zoona in Southern Africa) as well as to insurance schemes (e.g. Kilimo Salama, offering farmers protection against climate risks). Technologies proved to be mature in enhancing sectorial transparency through comprehensive information systems linking farmers to markets and viceversa (e.g. Esoko in West Africa, Kenya Agricultural Commodities Exchange, Reuters Market Lights in India – just to name a few). ICTs also supported the aggregation of agricultural stakeholders from both the public and private sector to form partnerships improving their overall wellbeing. In such case, the technology is allowing farmers to be part of local and global value chains, through a combination of low-tech media (e.g. radio) and ICTs – e.g. DrumNet in Kenya – or is helping stakeholders overcome issues preventing value chains to scale up – e.g. Manobi in West Africa.
Of course, this is just a fraction of the many applications that's been developed – some of which were failures , while some others were successful at the pilot stage only. Many new promising technologies are currently being developed, and farmers will be able to use them extensively in the next few years. Data collection and management is increasingly becoming cheaper and seamless, and sensors can help optimizing agricultural production as well as minimizing waste/losses (e.g. from pests, adverse weather events) and increasing safety standards (e.g. improving logistics). New data-driven monitoring tools could link smallholders producers to agribusiness that need standardized productions at both the quantitative and qualitative level. There is a great space for innovation in this area, and it is no surprise that big corporations are heavily investing into this space.
The number of existing technologies that have not been capitalized yet is even higher: for example, 4.4 billion people still does not have access to the Internet despite last-mile technologis are definitely already available. The promotion of low-tech Value-Added Services through cellular networks can also represent a big way to foster the dissemination of information to farmers, and the potential of mobile phones to collect data and information is still largely underdeveloped (despite the maturity of various applications - e.g. FrontlineSMS, Magpi) – it needs adequate customization of existing tools, training, and the involvement of key stakeholders and ‘infomediaries’ to make its application scale.
In conclusion, technology is already available to catalyze positive change in the agricultural sector and rural areas of developing and emerging regions. It is indeed key to understand the way people and organizations do interact in local ecosystems, and tailor information and communication solutions with them accordingly - avoiding to applying the latest technology based on the assumption that the best tool is the last being developed worldwide. All agricultural stakeholders should and could be part of the information revolution – starting with farmers, who can very well be information providers and not just the end-point of the information chain. There is also a great potential to build peer-to-peer information networks, rather than old-style hierarchical Transfer of Technology systems, and donors as well as NGOs can be pivotal in balancing the benefits of (big) data on both the public and private side. Smallholder farmers should indeed be truly empowered through emerging technologies by becoming able to independently plan and implement sustainable livelihoods strategies.