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

Feed the Future in a Digital World: Elevating the Role of Digital Technologies in Global Food Security

This post was written by Christopher Burns and Judy Payne.

Last month, the U.S. Government submitted to Congress the U.S. Government Global Food Security Strategy outlining an integrated, whole-of-government approach to achieving global food security. Eleven departments and agencies contributed to this strategy, building on what has been achieved through the U.S. Government’s Feed the Future initiative while recognizing that the world has changed remarkably since 2009 when President Obama launched the initiative.

One of the biggest changes that the new strategy reflects is the explosion in mobile phone adoption and the pervasiveness of digital services throughout the developing world. In the 19 current Feed the Future focus countries alone between 2010 and 2015 we have witnessed a 75 percent increase in unique mobile phone subscribership (one person, one SIM) and an 800 percent increase in smartphone adoption, according to GSMA. Globally, there has been a 400 percent increase in global mobile money deployments during the same timeframe.

Although mobile and digital technologies were available in the developing world in 2009, their uptake was limited and their effectiveness was largely unproven. Of course, many Feed the Future activities have taken advantage of the mobile revolution, including using mobile money to facilitate digital financial services, simple voice and text applications to alert farmers to weather events, tightening links between supply chain actors and tackling the challenge of counterfeit inputs with e-verification. Even so, and on a whole, many digital applications have not been financially and organizationally sustainable and hence have not been able to scale in their reach and effectiveness. Additionally, we have yet to holistically measure the impact of such applications.

The new strategy signals a remarkable shift. As the use of digital tools and services becomes pervasive even in the poorest countries, their role is strengthening. We know digital approaches have the potential to increase efficiencies and cost effectiveness; they also have potential for transforming entire agricultural value chains. The time is ripe to integrate the most proven tools in a manner that allows for greater data-driven decision-making, financial inclusion and more tailored information delivery to smallholder farmers and their families, while placing greater emphasis on rigorously determining what works — and, just as importantly, what doesn’t.

USAID, through its Bureau for Food Security and the U.S. Global Development Lab, has been facilitating broader adoption of digital technologies across Feed the Future. This year, the Agency released its Guide to the Use of Digital Financial Services in Agriculture, showcased a range of effective ICT-enabled Agricultural Services, and prompted discussions around the role of low-cost sensors for agriculture as a way to advance what Feed the Future projects are already doing to drive food security and nutrition among women and children.

With the release of the Global Food Security Strategy, the U.S. Government is elevating the critical role that mobile and digital technologies are playing and must continue to play in achieving global food security. The strategy covers a wide range of tools including mobile phones, real time data collection and analysis, the internet, telecommunications infrastructure, digital financial services including mobile money, and geospatial analysis.

How might this added emphasis translate into more effective and productive agricultural development? Examples include:

  • Leveraging data from remote- and ground-based sensors to drive more precision agriculture and better decisions from inputs to markets;
  • Facilitating better extension services that reach more farmers with tailored information and allow them to provide continuous feedback about what they want to know;
  • Promoting a pathway to greater resilience and fewer shocks through digitally-enabled financial inclusion;
  • Enabling richer monitoring, evaluation and learning through smarter data collection, analysis and delivery;
  • Encouraging feedback loops between development practitioners and communities to respond to on-the-ground realities mid-stream; and
  • Providing hyper-localized weather forecasting for improved farming practices.

All of these options can emphasize the role of women and youth in the agriculture sector through the use of these tools and build off of reliable, affordable and available telecommunication infrastructure, especially in rural areas.

Digital and mobile technologies are no longer an add-on to development activities but are core to achieving our goals. They are reshaping how farmers and national agricultural programs broaden market access, improve yields and identify new opportunities and innovations. As the agriculture sector responds to these trends, the model of effective development embodied in Feed the Future is shifting in unison. The new U.S. Government Global Food Security Strategy reflects this shift.

While the opportunities ahead of us must be tempered by and responsive to the Principles for Digital Development and a greater acknowledgement of the body of evidence that demonstrates what is and is not working, the strategy offers a compelling point from which to mobilize action. We look forward to working alongside our public and private sector partners and building what is to come, to ensure we are maximizing the tools available to us and to farmers everywhere.

Digital Development for Feed the Future is a collaboration between USAID’s U.S. Global Development Lab and Bureau for Food Security focused on integrating digital technologies into Feed the Future activities to accelerate reductions in global hunger, malnutrition and poverty.

Christopher Burns is the Senior Coordinator, Digital Development for Feed the Future in the U.S. Global Development Lab at USAID. Judith Payne is the Digital Solutions Advisor for Agriculture in the Bureau for Food Security at USAID.