I just finished reading “Connected Agriculture”; a new report on ICT, mobile and agriculture by Vodafone and Accenture (with support from Oxfam). I found this report very interesting. The aim of this blog post is to share my views and comments, and see if there are other opinions in the community.
As part of our work on Web for Agriculture initiative, and our related projects (W4RA, VBAT, VOICES), I’ve read numerous reports on ICT for agriculture, or ICT for the base of the pyramid (see e.g. my last post on ICT for the BoP). I’m typically skeptical on the need for yet another study. However, this is one of the best, most easy to read, overviews of the potential of ICT/Mobile in agriculture. It is pretty rare to see such studies with a holistic approach centered on farmers, their needs, and elements that could improve their lives. It would have been helpful to add another chapter on how to scale up, in a sustainable manner, the services reviewed in the report so that they are directly usable by the majority of people at the base of the pyramid. This is where the current work of the Web Foundation shows promise, as discussed below.
The report covers four areas (information services, trading services, financial services, and supply chain services) that are rarely put together in one study. All of these areas are critically important for people. Experts in any or all of these areas might not find much that is new to them, but it is a really great global overview. So in few words, I strongly recommend reading it (and sharing your views here!).
Now, let’s go deeper into the analysis of the content. In each of the four topic areas, there is a detailed analysis of current systems and pilots, the identification of challenges, and the possible impact, with very detailed numbers. I know that people love such numbers. But I’m usually very cautious regarding numbers. It is extremely difficult to know if this is reasonable or not, particularly as the underlying model(s) used to make the calculations are not provided and explained. That said, I’m sure that there numbers are based on current pilot outputs. What is important for me is more the qualitative aspects. It is clear that the different topics addressed in the report are critical to improving the livelihood of small-scale producers, who are one of the most disadvantaged segments of population in developing countries.
In that regard, this report is a great contribution to the domain. It identifies and underlines the potential for ICT and mobile technologies in different dimensions to directly increase the income of people.
But I think we need more now. We need an implementation plan, we need to realize this potential and not merely talk and write about it.
The important question is HOW?
From my perspective, this report does not provide answers to this most important question. My understanding, and I may be wrong, is that the proposed action is to scale up the existing systems: m-Pesa has great results in Kenya … scale it up; SMS-based trading platforms have some impact … scale them up; farmer helplines are useful … scale them up.
I’m not sure scaling up these existing services is the only answer. Our experience with VBAT and W4RA, which are addressing farmer helplines and trading platforms, tells us that the current generation of systems are not scalable from the perspective of the technology, farmers abilities and sustainability. Some specific examples:
Each worker can handle up to 70 requests a day, which covers close to 10% of the worker salary. The figure below show the evolution of sustainability as the service is scaling up.
It is obvious that this is not going to be sustainable. Now let’s look at the problem from another perspective. 85% of the requests that are placed have been asked and answered before, and thus are already in the system (no need for external expert intervention). So if farmers could automatically find the answer they need, without human intervention, the new scenario in terms of sustainability gives the following projection:
It is obvious to me that if we are able to empower farmers, and enable them to use technologies directly, we could help farmers in a way that is sustainable.
In the same way, for trading platforms, the current hype is around SMS services. How can we imagine that SMS will scale up? Some numbers that come from the literature: 4% of people in rural Gambia are able to use SMS (source). 20% of the total population in Bangladesh is able to use SMS (source). Our experience in Mali: where we work in the Mopti, Tominian, Bandiagara, Bankass regions, we’ve encountered almost no one able to use SMS. Here again, trading platforms will scale when farmers will be enabled directly with technologies that they can use.
The Web Foundation is exploring voice technologies as a way for many more people to access information through the Web . The voice channel works on all phones, and can be deployed immediately. In the future, icon-based interfaces on feature phone with IP connections might also become an opportunity. Overall to realize the potential that is underlined in the report, it is essential to invest-in and develop interfaces for people who cannot use text input and output.
It is exactly the same for financial services. There is a huge, and well-deserved buzz around m-Pesa. However, m-Pesa is not accessible to people who cannot use the text interface (SMS, USSD, etc.). So there is an element of exclusion in such initiatives even though inclusion is cited as their success factors. For those who cannot use text, they must rely on intermediaries who might be hard to find, dishonest or expensive.
Mobile technologies provide incredible opportunities to realize the promise of ICT for development. I am convinced that in agriculture and finance, some services that have been tested have demonstrated their ability to increase income and improve people lives. The current generation of services are not scalable, and not usable by all farmers at this point in time. It is therefore essential to focus on a new generation of mobile-based financial services, trading platforms, helplines, and other services. that are usable directly by all farmers, and that are financially sustainable. Most of these goals are in the roadmap of our Web for Agriculture and Voice Browsing initiatives.