A Global Conference: ICTforAg 2020
On November 18, 2020, participants from around the globe came together for ICTforAg 2020, an annual conference hosted by USAID’s Bureau for Resilience and Food Security and implemented by the Digital Frontiers project. ICTforAg embraced the unique opportunity that this challenging year has presented and pivoted from an in-person event to an online gathering featuring perspectives from around the world of digital agriculture. The conference’s three overarching themes were:
- Systems-oriented solutions: seeking solutions, learnings, and knowledge that impact food and/or water systems;
- Digital inclusion: sharing new learning and knowledge related to the access and adoption of digital agriculture and resilience-focused tools, and;
- Private sector engagement: strengthening the understanding and application of best practices in engaging the private sector for responsible and appropriate leveraging of digital agriculture and resilience-focused tools.
ICTforAg 2020 examined how digital solutions in agriculture are fostering resilience in the wake of unexpected disruptions. Capitalizing on the increased global reach made possible through a virtual event – the conference was an opportunity to have a diverse and inclusive conversation about the state of digital agriculture in a truly unprecedented year.
What we took away
As two members of the organizing team, we have been engaged with ICTforAg since early 2020 and were excited to see it successfully pivot due to the incredible focus of our colleagues at DevGlobal Partners and a steering committee of experts and thought leaders from USAID, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the World Bank, the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office, and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. In reflecting on the important conversations that took place during the event, we wanted to share some of our personal takeaways.
Araba Sapara-Grant, Digital Specialist, Center for Digital Acceleration, DAI
From the locust outbreak in East Africa to the COVID-19 pandemic, this year has made it clear that in a world increasingly shaped by unpredictability, the digital development community can no longer afford to address one specific challenge at a time. Highlighting the importance of collaboration, adaptability and user-centricity, many ICTforAg speakers shared what it will take to ensure that digital agriculture tools can withstand the political, environmental and social challenges in our midst. To that end, the session, Digital Responses to Layered Disruptions, left me with several important takeaways:
- Collaboration and collective problem solving is key. In order to enact proactive responses to global crises, collaboration among stakeholders is key. Speakers noted that to achieve the flexibility and velocity needed to respond to shocks within our various market systems, stakeholder networks that share information quickly and efficiently, and use this data to support the development of collective solutions are critical. Digital platforms have a major role to play as they offer an opportunity to collect data, deliver trainings and enable timely information sharing up and down agricultural value chains.
- Don’t lose sight of the primary challenges. While COVID-19 and the increasing frequency of other market shocks have increased the demand for digital solutions and a new wave of innovation, we must not lose sight of the primary challenges to be addressed to ensure that countries have strong digital ecosystems to support the introduction and scale of these innovations. Weak connectivity, unreliable power sources and limited access to mobile or digitally enabled devices prevents many members of the agriculture sector, especially women, from participating in digitalization. Further, digital platforms or applications that have not adequately incorporated regional, social or cultural context, and traditional agricultural methods risk damaging how stakeholders see the usefulness of digital technology. Without addressing some of these core challenges, the role that digital tools can play in bolstering resilience in the face of layered disruptions will be limited.
- Data integration can increase our foresight. Disruptions to agricultural production and trade caused by COVID-19 threaten to expand the threat of extreme hunger around the world. Better integration and synthesis of data on digital platforms can help increase decision support for a range of stakeholders in the agriculture sector. Organizations seeking to build these integrated platforms must consider how best to facilitate knowledge co-production, increase technological accessibility and expand local capacity to ensure that they remain accessible and available to local communities.
Alana McGinty, Senior Program Manager, USAID Digital Frontiers Project
My greatest takeaway from ICTforAg 2020 was the increased inclusion that a virtual event can foster. When we accepted the need to pivot to a virtual conference, I’ll be transparent, I was slightly skeptical about what the outcome would be. This is probably because I enjoy the energy of an in-person conference atmosphere. What I realized participating in the process of planning and executing ICTforAg is just how much more inclusive a virtual event can be.
I discovered there are several ways this inclusion happens:
- With your participants. Rather than being restricted to the folks whose organizations can pay for them to travel to a one-day conference, or who happen to be based nearby the event venue, the reach of an online event is literally global. We were able to engage folks during ICTforAg that we normally wouldn’t -- for example, university students and small NGOs. For a conference focused on agriculture and resilience, I think this reach is critically important. These participants added to the conversation and expanded the dialogue beyond the “typical” development conference voices.
- With your presenters. Similar to participants, having a virtual conference and pre-recording the sessions allowed us to involve speakers from around the globe representing a wide range of organizations working in the agriculture and resilience space. Again, the inclusion of voices outside of what we may “typically” see at a development conference served to enrich the conversations and perspectives shared that day.
- In your sessions. Hosting a virtual global conference allowed us to think outside the box. For example, we were able to have sessions in Spanish and French. We also had a session, my personal favorite of the day, Ask Me Anything: Farmers, that included farmers from Brazil, Bangladesh, Colombia, Paraguay, and Ghana. This was the most impactful session for me personally as it brought in voices that I have not heard at other conferences I’ve attended. It was a lightbulb moment for me. I look forward to working with colleagues across the sector to ensure we continue to diversify the voices highlighted at these events going forward.
What to expect this month
Throughout this month, we look forward to continuing the important conversations started at ICTforAg 2020. You can expect to see blog posts covering the wide range of topics that were discussed throughout the day of November 18, when ICTforAg was live, from both participants and speakers. These posts will dive deeper and build upon the themes covered at the event. If you’d like to catch up on anything you may have missed from the event you can still access ICTforAg 2020 session videos. We invite you to join in those conversations throughout the month as we continue to explore how digital solutions in agriculture are fostering resilience in the wake of unexpected disruptions.