Blog post: Harnessing technology to work for Africa's smallholder farmers

23 January 2019

Harnessing technology to work for Africa's smallholder farmers

Can new technologies reduce the cost of training for Africa’s smallholder farmers, with a significant positive impact on agribusinesses and, therefore, on the farmers they work with? The jury is still out, but the idea was tested recently when AgDevCo’s Smallholder Development Unit (SDU) hosted a Knowledge Sharing Workshop in Kampala.

Bringing together agribusinesses, financial service providers, funders, public-sector bodies and non-governmental organisations that work with smallholder farmers in Uganda - the workshop was part of the AgDevCo partnership with Mastercard Foundation to boost the incomes of smallholder farmers in seven African countries by providing training, better quality inputs, and brokering long-term purchase contracts. Discussions highlighted that many agribusinesses are exploring how best to use new technologies to drive adoption of good agricultural practices and improved yields and production quality.
E-Extension Versus Boots on the Ground
While companies such as Wefarmare promoting a fully-digital approach to interact with farmers over mobile phones, other agribusinesses are using new technologies alongside their existing “high-touch” extension services, to help improve the effectiveness and reduce the cost of providing those services.
It’s clear that if new technologies can reduce the cost of training and extension, this could have a significant positive impact on agribusinesses and therefore on the smallholder farmers they work with. The analysis of “Service Delivery Models”, carried out by IDH, highlights the high cost of providing training to farmers, and how this restricts agribusinesses’ margins and prevents their growth. But there are also signs that new technologies can be more effective than traditional approaches. A good example is the use of video for training farmers, which has been used by Opportunity International and by the Gulu Agricultural Development Company (GADC) to standardise the training messages they are delivering. This seems to have had a positive effect on attendance at training while also increasing participants’ retention of the training messages delivered: two weeks after delivering the video-based training, Opportunity International found that farmers scored 84% on a test of their knowledge, compared to 52% for those trained using traditional methods. If video training leads to greater adoption of good agricultural practices, it will drive positive impacts for farmer yields, their income, and the agribusinesses themselves. Other participants highlighted that new technologies can help draw younger people into agriculture, helping to alleviate concerns about the aging farmer population in many countries.
On the other hand, for now, there is limited empirical evidence on the cost effectiveness of these new technological approaches and their consequent impact on both the business and the farmer. This is partly because many of the initiatives are so new, and experimentation and piloting is still underway. But gathering evidence is also particularly awkward for interventions that are rolled out at scale or that involve only remote contact with farmers. Syngenta highlighted the example of Arifu, which delivers training and technical support to farmers through a low-cost mobile phone interface. Arifu has scaled rapidly and is valued by its 180,000 farmers, who have nearly doubled their yields for some crops. However, it has not been possible to demonstrate clearly whether there is a positive return for Syngenta on its investment in Arifu.
Technological Considerations; Case by Case  
One clear message from the discussion was that the appropriate technological solutions will depend on the context: what works in one region or one value chain may not work well in another. Parts of Uganda still have low mobile phone penetration rates, and in many places, poor networks and the cost of usage prevent mobile phones from being used as a reliable tool for interacting with farmers. GADC’s use of video for training has evolved over time through constant testing and adjusting of both the delivery methodology and the equipment used; developing innovative ways to find a cost-effective solution that works both for the business and the farmers.
The potential for new technologies to improve the ways that agribusinesses engage with smallholder farmers is certainly exciting. But in many cases the business case remains unproven, and it’s clear that there won’t be a “one size fits all” solution. Agribusinesses will need to experiment to find the balance of high-tech and high-touch services that works for them and for their farmers. The SDU is committed to bringing together all stakeholders who work with smallholder farmers. Our next Knowledge Sharing Workshop will build on lessons learned from Kampala and encourage further in-depth discussion and networking, this time among the agricultural sector in Ghana.