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

The New Alliance ICT Extension Challenge Fund: Two Key Challenges

This is the first in a series of blog posts by Judy Payne, USAID’s information and communications technologies (ICT) advisor for agriculture, on using ICT to enhance the reach and impact of agricultural development activities.

Information and communications technologies (ICT) can enhance agricultural development programs in many ways. To this end, USAID’s New Alliance ICT Extension Challenge Fund is seeking to expand ICT-enabled extension services through the awarding of grants in six countries in Africa: Ethiopia, Ghana, Malawi, Mozambique, Senegal and Tanzania. The goal is to reach four million farmers in three years with sustainable ICT-enabled services.

The New Alliance ICT Extension Challenge Fund is one component of the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition. The Fund is managed by USAID and supported by the United Kingdom's Department for International Development (DFID), the Gates Foundation, and the International Fund for International Development (IFAD). The funding opportunity, now closed, was announced on the Agrilinks blog last spring, among other places.

The goal for each country grantee is to use ICT-enabled extension services—complementing traditional agriculture extension services—to increase the adoption of technologies that increase productivity for poor smallholder farmers. The New Alliance Scaling Seeds and Other Technologies Partnership (SSTP), working with each government’s CAADP process, has selected the technologies. They include quality seeds of superior varieties as well as improved inputs and agronomic practices.

These new grants have two especially interesting provisions. First, each grantee is required to integrate its services across ICT “channels.” Second, each grantee is evaluated on not only how many farmers are reached and are applying one of the target technologies, but also on progress toward scaling services that are financially sustainable and not donor dependent. Each of these provisions is discussed further below.

Cross-Channel ICT-Enabled Extension Services. Given that ICT refers to a range of technologies such as mobile text, voice and data applications, as well as low-cost video, radio and television, each grantee has to figure out the best mix to convince farmers to try something new. Grantees will also need to be able to teach farmers how to apply the new technology, remind them what they have learned, and give them a chance to ask questions. There are a few instances where cross-channel approaches are being used (e.g., adding SMS messaging to another channel such as radio), but as a whole, examples of a robust cross-channel approach are scarce.

The cross-channel approach poses a few challenges. Digitized content must be coordinated so the channels are mutually reinforcing and farmers don’t literally get mixed messages. Tackling digitized agriculture content has been hard enough with one channel; this adds another layer of complexity. Also, a cross-channel approach requires figuring out how to use the best channel—or combination—for each type of communication, and to do so cost-effectively. Some decisions are obvious. For example, no one would try to teach a farmer plant grafting via SMS. It is less obvious what the trade-offs are between using an interactive voice response (IVR) system versus a text-based service or a call center and how best to combine these with low cost video. Finally, a cross-channel service requires coordinated timing of ICT-enabled services along with coordination with non-ICT extension services. For example, radio could be used to “prime” some target farmers to visit a farmer field day or demo plot by providing information on the techniques and crops to be featured, and SMS might be used the day after the event to solicit famer feedback.

Financial and organizational sustainability. Without financial and organizational sustainability, services cannot continue to scale beyond the grant period. Yet, we rarely measure progress toward sustainability. The Fund will try this. (We may need help getting the indicators right!) Note that we count as financially sustainable any service that receives some government funds, as long as they are from a host government and not a donor. Given that most governments consider extension services as a public good, their funding, if ongoing, could be a key part of financial sustainability.

The grantees will explore other questions through a separate learning activity, such as:

  • What are some good approaches to integrating ICT-enabled services with government extension services?
  • What is the right mix of services going directly to farmers versus to mediators (e.g., extension agents) or farmer groups?
  • How important is it to integrate other services into a suite of services to make the package financially viable (e.g., adding digital financial services or market information)?

The first four New Alliance ICT Extension Challenge Fund grantees are Digital Green in Ethiopia, Catholic Relief Services in Malawi, Concern Universal in Senegal, and the Grameen Foundation in Ghana. Each is leading a consortium of ICT-enabled service providers.

We are excited to share learning from these and other promising efforts! I will announce the remaining grantees and provide more details on each grantee’s approach in future blog posts and webinars.