Feed the Future
This project is part of the U.S. Government's global hunger and food security initiative.

Digital Solutions for Agriculture: New Evidence and Updates

This post is part of a series of occasional blogs by Judy Payne, USAID’s ICT Advisor for Agriculture, on using information communications and technologies (ICT) to enhance the reach and impact of agricultural development activities.

Interest in digital solutions for agriculture is growing so fast that I will touch on only some of the many intriguing topics I have come across recently.  

Both of these publications are worth at least a skim, if not an afternoon: 

  1. Foreign Affairs’ recent special issue on African Farmers in the Digital Age covers topics from policy and CAADP to big data for small farmers. Written by luminaries and practitioners from Africa, each article closes with the author’s personal story related to the topic. Read and share your favorites with me! 
  2. The 2016 World Bank Development Report, Digital Dividends, gives us a thoughtful way to consider where to look for digital dividends related to increased inclusion, efficiency and innovation as well as how we might accelerate gains for the poor.   

Evidence! I am always looking for solid evidence that demonstrates how digital solutions can cost-effectively improve the livelihoods of smallholder farmers, with an eye toward scalability. A recent NYU study of mobile phone market price services in Ghana (from Esoko) found that farmers using the services received 8 to 9 percent higher prices for yams than did the control group farmers. These gains persisted over time. At least as interesting, the study found that in the long run (two years), spillover effects meant that these increases in prices were received by farmers in nearby villages who did not subscribe to price alerts. These benefits were not due to information sharing between farmers but to traders’ reactions. Finally, the study estimated the return on investment for those farmers subscribing to the price alert at 200 percent. I hope this effect extends beyond yams!

And more evidence. Yelp for Cows?  Well, something like that. We are lucky that ATAI (the Agriculture Technology Adoption Initiative) of JPAL (the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab) and University of California’s Center for Effective Global Action conduct rigorous research to increase the likelihood that poor farmers will actually benefit from new technologies. Some of this research involves digital technologies, including a study in Pakistan. One set of farmers were given information on the success rates of government vets’ artificial insemination (AI) services (ratings collected via a mobile crowd sourcing application); another set of farmers received no such information. Those that received it ended up having 26 percent higher AI success rates—more pregnant cows. It turns out this was because their current vets improved their services once they knew how they stacked up against their peers. Farmers didn’t even have to switch vets! And these same vets reduced their fees while improving their service. This is more evidence of the power of digitally-enabled crowd sourcing of information.

And even more promising evidence. I just learned about an experiment demonstrating how big data helped rice farmers in Colombia adapt to climate change. Scientists at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) mined data related to rice surveys, harvests and weather to develop recommendations for farmers regarding:

  • Precise sowing dates in respect to sunnier weather
  • A different seed variety to plant due to climate changes 

Farmers that followed the recommendations avoided significant economic losses and could improve yields by 1 to 2 tons more per hectare. That’s the good news. The bad news is that doing this requires enormous amounts of historical data regarding weather and crop seasons. CIAT is now working to scale the approach and extend it to Peru and Nicaragua.

Better metrics and learning questions! Related to evidence, I have been thinking with others about improved metrics for digitally-enabled agriculture services. How can we better measure their cost-effectiveness? How can we better design these services to improve their cost-effectiveness for users? In ICT-enabled extension, what is the most effective mix of delivery approaches? My hunch is that a mix of ICT-enabled extension services (say, radio programs or videos combined with timely reminders and alerts) should be able to improve the correct application of new practices and technologies across crop cycles, an effect missed when we simply measure whether a farmer has tried a new approach in one crop cycle. Here’s a question I’d like to pose to you all: What are some other suggested metrics and learning questions related to ICT and extension?

I will close with two updates. First, all six of the New Alliance ICT Extension Challenge Fund country grantees are now rolling. Tanzania’s country grantee, Farm Radio International (FRI), funded by the International Fund for Food and Agriculture Development (IFAD), is working with sub-grantee CABI to increase the adoption of targeted, proven technologies. Mozambique’s country grantee, NCBA CLUSA (working with sub-grantees Human Network International and FRI) is working to do the same.  We are also finalizing common indicators to measure and compare progress across countries.

Second, USAID just launched a Guide to the Use of Digital Financial Services in Agriculture as part of the U.S. Government’s Feed the Future initiative. Take a look and give me your feedback! We would love to hear from you on how it can be improved.

Lastly, don't miss this webinar on April 14 on Interactive Voice Response (IVR) and its growing role in agricultural extension services.