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Making low-cost digital tools the critical solution to smallholder farmers’ needs during global crises

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Digital information-sharing tools such as audio, text and video messaging through mobile phones can prove to be highly effective in disseminating critical information to smallholder farmers during times of limited physical access as seen in the present COVID-19 pandemic. In a recent webinar on using affordable mobile technologies to assist smallholder farmers during these adverse times, experts in digital technology in agriculture shared examples of current successes and ideas for potential scaling up.

“Digital agriculture will play a key part in developing extension services across geographies, with extension workers connecting the community to knowledge management systems.” He recommended that, in partnership with national agri institutions, information about climate, finance, agronomy, pests/disease, etc. could be provided to extension workers, so that they could then pass it on to the farmers. “They can be assisted in this by apps such as Plantix. This is an incredible opportunity to bring these information systems together,” he said, emphasizing that digital tools should be used to disseminate scientific knowledge that is integrated with indigenous knowhow and adapted to local contexts.

Mr Ram Dhulipala, Theme Leader, Digital Agriculture and Youth Initiatives, ICRISAT, outlined four key areas in which digital tools supported by ICRISAT were making a big difference:

Extension services

Extension services – knowledge sharing through field demonstrations, farmer field days etc. – play a key role in supporting smallholder farmers. The pandemic-related social distancing has led to a big move towards to mainstreaming e-extension services – knowledge sharing through mobile phones, TV and social media. iSAT (Intelligent Systems Advisory Tool) is a good example, helping 8000 farmers in India by relaying essential weather-related agrometeorological advisory services. Recently, e-extension services have been set up for the Accelerated Value Chain Development project in Kenya, benefitting 20,000 farmers.

Input value chains

New self-service apps or agent-led e-commerce models for providing farmers with seeds, fertilizers, and other farm inputs have led to enhanced transparency and removal of intermediaries. Digitalization of existing structures and functions also pave the way for future easier access to institutional finance.

Agriculture marketing

Since the lockdown in India happened just as produce was ready for harvest and sale, several self-service portals or agent-led models stepped in to successfully link farm gate produce directly to consumers. Citizen-led approaches using social media platforms such as WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter etc. played a big role in this effort.

Collectivization of farmers

Digital tools help in collectivization of smallholder farmers, helping them pool resources and benefit from shared mechanized farm equipment rentals, drones (for spraying of pesticides), online aggregation and sale of produce etc.

Ms Erna Groudt, Client Relationship Manager at eProd, a Kenya-based ERP for agriculture supply chain management, spoke about how their product was working remotely to collect reliable farm data from farmers’ fields, share weather and other information with farmers through SMS etc., and relieve cashflow restraints by providing credit mobile payments and so on.

Mr Jonathan Lehe, Chief Development Officer of Precision Agriculture for Development, described how his company developed a two-way SMS platform to warn farmers of emergency fall armyworm outbreaks in partnership with the Kenyan Ministry of Agriculture. Also, in Uganda, they provided two-way voice-based services of digital advice to smallholder coffee farmers.

The webinar – ‘Supporting farmers with low-cost digital tools during the COVID pandemic’ was conducted on 19 May as part of the ICT4D Conference
series, by Catholic Relief Services (CRS) and NetHope. It was moderated by Sonja Ruetzel, CRS. The video of the session can be seen here.

About the author:

Rajani Kumar
Senior Communications Officer
ICRISAT