Bridging Ghana's Digital Divide
For two weeks in late August, I crisscrossed Ghana, covering nearly 1,500 miles in the country’s Northern, Upper East and Brong-Ahafo regions. I was there to conduct field research with the main value chain project of USAID Ghana’s Feed the Future program, Agricultural Development and Value Chain Enhancement II (ADVANCE II). The program aims to improve the livelihoods of 113,000 smallholder farmer beneficiaries by boosting the productivity of rice, maize and soy value chains with digital technologies to support the project’s operations and agricultural goals.
Each day, I met with ADVANCE II field staff, nucleus farmers, agricultural service providers and smallholder farmers, learning how mobile phones supported farming activities. I recall a conversation on one of my first mornings in-country with a nucleus farmer in Karaga, in the Northern Region, before he left for his field at 7:30am.
When we arrived, I asked how he used mobile technology to support his farming activities. He showed me the text messages he had received from ADVANCE II, which included farming tips, weather forecasts and market prices. He explained that although many of the farmers he works with do not have their own cell phones, as many are not literate, he shares the information he receives from ADVANCE II with as many of his farmers as possible. He’s emphasized that he is always looking for new ways to support his farmers.
When looking at nationwide statistics and trends on poverty reduction, agricultural growth and access to digital technology, Ghana is demonstrating significant progress. Recently, the nation was reclassified as a middle income country, but Ghana’s development has been widely unequal. The World Bank reports that at the same time the number of the poor in southern Ghana declined by 2.5 million, it increased by nearly one million in northern Ghana.
When it comes to technology access, Ghana’s market penetration (meaning, the number of unique mobile phone subscribers — one person, one SIM card) is just under 67 percent. Yet looking at the ADVANCE II beneficiaries within the four regions where the project works, Northern, Upper West, Upper East and Brong-Ahafo, this number plummets to 33 percent.
Lack of phone access and connectivity is a key challenge for ADVANCE II, particularly when seeking to use technology interventions in the country’s more rural communities. Literacy is another challenge, as well as language — many Ghanaian farmers speak little to no English, speaking one of ten local languages instead. Yet recognizing the transformative potential of digital tools and approaches, when applied to agricultural activities, ADVANCE II has consistently sought to leverage these approaches to the greatest extent possible. It is the project’s philosophy that doing so will allow them to reach further, heighten impact and streamline operations, which will ultimately lead to better impacts for Ghana’s smallholder farmers.
Building on pilots conducted in its predecessor project, ADVANCE II incorporates a variety of digital tools and approaches into its work, including:
A mobile data collection and analysis system, including use of the data-collection tool Data Winners and a SmartCard system that assigns each farmer beneficiary a unique identifier and a physical identification card, equipped with an internal chip holding his or identification information, for the project to more efficiently track participation at trainings and reach;
Geospatial analysis, to layer and present data in a way that is visually appealing, easy to understand and actionable;
Text- and voice-based messages sent directly to beneficiaries’ mobile phones, including agricultural information, market prices and weather forecasts, through partnerships with Esoko, Voto Mobile, Ignitia and Farmerline;
A tablet-based extension system, facilitated through a partnership with the Grameen Foundation;
Partnerships with radio stations to broadcast agricultural programs in local languages, combined with radio listenership groups; and
Digital financial services, to promote savings behaviors and support safer, more efficient transactions and access to finance for its farmer beneficiaries.
Ultimately, Ghana's digital economy has witnessed an impressive transformation in the past decade. ADVANCE II has sought to take advantage of the new digital economy in Ghana, building on learnings from its predecessor project and leveraging digital tools as a key enabler towards meeting its agricultural goal of improving the livelihoods of 113,000 smallholder farmers throughout Ghana. These tools and approaches, when combined, lead to greater efficiencies and heightened impact for the project and its farmer beneficiaries along three categories: operational use, enhanced information delivery and financial inclusion.
Interested in learning more about ADVANCE II and Feed the Future? Check out our case study.
Nicole Brand is a Program Analyst for the Digital Development for Feed the Future team within the U.S. Agency for International Development's U.S. Global Development Lab.