Using ICT for Agricultural Markets: A Q&A with Tara Chiu of the Feed the Future Assets and Market Access Innovation Lab
This interview is part of an Agrilinks series showcasing the work of the Feed the Future Innovation Labs. The Innovation Labs use collaborative research to develop and scale sustainable technologies to feed a growing population with nutritious, safe foods. These labs form a network of more than 70 U.S. colleges and universities working with developing country partners to pioneer solutions that boost productivity, combat emerging threats and benefit farmers and food producers both at home and abroad.
As part of Agrilinks’ focus on information and communication technology for agriculture (ICT4Ag) this month, this interview with Tara Chiu, Assistant Director of the Feed the Future Assets and Market Access Innovation Lab, looks at a few of the many ways ICT is helping improve food security and farmer livelihoods.
Tell us about the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Assets and Market Access. What is your scope? How and where do you operate?
The AMA Innovation Lab at UC Davis conducts research on policies and programs designed to help smallholder farmers adopt productive technologies, manage risk and take an active part in their own economic growth. We translate that research into policy documents and sponsor outreach events that integrate our findings into a coherent voice about priorities and options.
We work with researchers around the country and the world, typically with a researcher in the US co-leading research with a team of local researchers in-country. We work primarily in Feed the Future countries but operate worldwide. We try to identify opportunities to address in-country needs but also have global impact through our findings.
This month we’re focusing on ICT4Ag and what we know and what needs to happen to actualize its great potential for farmers globally. What is the AMA Lab investigating in this area, and what have you learned so far?
Our work utilizes ICT in three general ways. First, ICT actually helps us do the research to understand the challenges farmers face; second, it helps us in designing solutions; and third, ICT can be the actual solutions themselves. As a development community, we face a lot of barriers to understanding preferences and behaviors, which ICT can help — tablets making it so much easier to conduct field surveys, for example. Our partners are also testing methods like crowdsourcing to obtain hard-to-get data on marginalized local areas. If we can use ICT to fill the gaps in available data, and collect better data in greater detail, that could be a real game changer.
We also use ICT to improve design, important in a resource constrained environment. For example, we are using high resolution satellite data in developing quality, high-value index insurance products. Finally, the interventions themselves can be ICT-based and run the gamut from low to high tech.
Tell me about a few of the ICT-based solutions you see having on-the-ground impact.
It is quite impressive to see the dramatic impact SMS messages are having in Ghana. We use them to send daily and weekly weather forecasts, which help farmers make best use of weather patterns and improve decision-making, such as optimizing dates for planting and fertilizer application. In Kenya, too, SMS text messages offering basic agronomic advice helped increase basic sugarcane farm yields by 11.5 percent.
We are now testing a digital trading platform in Uganda called Kudu, which has already been used to facilitate 900 successful sales involving 1,000 tons of grain. It works to break down barriers to food security and create a digital bridge from the rural to urban market.
There was poor integration of local market systems to meet growing food demand, which can lead to depressed sales, price volatility and even shortages. Urban buyers don’t want to go from small farm to small farm hoping they have what they need. The online trading platform, developed in conjunction with a local university in Uganda, helps match buyers and sellers in an efficient, cost-effective way.
Do you look ahead to commercial viability and consumer willingness to pay when testing new solutions?
With Kudu specifically, it was such an innovative model, we needed to develop proof of concept before gauging private sector interest. However, all of our projects have an eye to commercial sustainability. For example, in all of our index insurance solutions, we have private sector partners participating in the research itself.
What has most surprised you in this field from your research?
Honestly one of the things that still surprises me the most is that while we are often enticed by flashy technology, sometimes simplest solutions are still the best. It can be tempting to develop a cool new technology and try to apply it rather than letting the problems lead the solutions. For example, the SMS texts to farmers about weather: it’s a basic solution that could easily be overcomplicated, but by keeping it simple, it has been more sustainable and high impact.
If you were to pursue a new project related to ICT4Ag, what would it be?
I would like to explore how ICT can be used to educate the market for smallholder index based insurance about the products available and how to improve distribution channels to get these products to the people who need them most. There is a lot of potential impact in index insurance if you can get the people who need these products the most.