Can ICT4D help achieve food security?

This was the question that the four speakers at Nethope’s webinar on agriculture and ICT4D approached by all giving their food for thought on the subject. The webinar which took place last year hosted a wide range of experts from both the tech and humanitarian sector.

While there is off course no quick fix for food security, the four panelists on the webinar each offered their insight on how technology can help small scale farmers, and important things to think about when approaching the issue.

Designing for and with the farmers

Both Alice Van der Elstraeten, E-agriculture specialist at FAO and Jacob Korenblum, CEO of the tech firm Souktel empathized the need of using a participatory approach when implementing ICT4D projects. The farmers’ needs and problems should be in focus in order to find solutions that works for them. They both also highlighted the digital divide in terms of gender, digital literacy and access to and use of technology.

“We have learned through the years that, even within the same single farming community people have very different access to technology and very different usage habits” said Jacob Korenblum.

The way his company, which provide open source tech solutions for NGOs that are implementing donor funded agricultural projects, address the divide is by applying a multi-platform approach where the same content can be access through different channels depending on the access of the area.

“The core technology that we build, the backbone, is always focusing on how to get content to and from people on multiple channels such as Facebook messenger, WhatsApp, SMS, and IVR”

Example of a conversation a farmer could have with a chatbot, a robot that have been programmed to answer farmer’s questions based on information from a database. ©Jacob Korenblum/Souktel

Location and times specific advice

Brian King, Coordinator of CGIAR’s Big Data Platform at CIAT (International Center for Tropical Agriculture) showcased a Colombian example of how location and time specific advice in can add value to the farmers.

“There was a very loose hypnosis that the decline of rice yields had to do with climate change or climate variability” said Brian King

The CIAT research project analyzed more that 4,000 crop events in order to understand why the yields were declining. Using the data, they were then able to give time and location specific advice to the farmers in order to increase the productivity. Some farmers were for an example advised to change the type of rice planted, while others were advised to delay the planting. The farmers that implemented the advice yielded 1-3 ton more rice per hectare than the comparison fields.

Financial Sustainability

Dr. Kathryn Clifton, ICT4D Knowledge Management and Communication’s Specialist at Catholic Relief Services, stressed the importance to not rely solely on government partnership financially as urgent issues such as famine can turn around a county’s budget unexpectantly. She advised organizations to explore private sector partnership instead, at least as an extra leg to stand on.

In order to succeed with ICT4D projects Kathryn also advised that it is important to identify if the project is a push or pull service. That is if it is something that the users (farmers or other parts of the supply chain in this case) is actively looking for themselves (pull) or if the project supplies push services, which is more of non-urgent advice that is best addressed once the user is already using another service. As an example she gave that an outbreak of a cattle disease can pull the farmers to visit the vet, while advice on nutrition is something the farmer can receive (push) while already at the vet as an add on service.