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Editor's Choice, November: Connected Agriculture. How mobile technology helps tackle age-old challenges

It is not often that a set of promising practical solution are posed to challenges as deep and ingrained as those facing smallholder farmers and inclusive business.   ‘Connected Agriculture, this month’s Editor’s Choice, highlights 4 critical ways in which mobile technology can benefit farmers and agribusiness.

 

  1. Improving access to financial services.  E.g. mobile payments, mobile insurance.
  2. Provision of agricultural information.  E.g. prices, weather forecasts
  3. Data visibility for supply chain efficiency.  E.g. traceability and tracking of supply and distribution
  4. Enhancing access to markets.  E.g. trading or bartering platform.

 

In total, 12 opportunities are explored in the report, grouped into these four categories.    Each is clearly explained, with a diagram of how it works, and barriers and recommendations identified.  Estimated uptake and benefits may be a tad optimistic, but the report is a good checklist of the opportunities that any inclusive agribusiness could consider.

 

The report was commissioned from Accenture by Vodafone, co-published by both, and the full title reflects its scope:  Connected Agriculture: the role of mobile in driving efficiency and sustainability in the food and agriculture value chain.  It covered 26 countries where Vodafone is present, from Africa and Asia, to Europe and the Middle East, though the findings focus on opportunities in developing markets and small-scale farming.

 

The report does a good job of highlighting potential gains in productivity and efficiency, with plenty of zeros on potential farmer income: a US$138 billion boost to farmer income in 26 of Vodafone’s markets by 2020.  The big contributors are options 1 and 2:  financial services and agricultural information.

 

What it doesn’t cover is the commercial drivers and returns for companies that provide the hardware, software and mobile connectivity. But I think we can take it as given that this substantive report is a reflection of the importance of this market to Vodafone.   It identifies some common challenges and ways forward that will require collaborative action by all players, including government and NGOs, and that will help unlock both the commercial potential for companies, as well as the productivity gains for farmers.

 

I find this report exciting because so many of the projects supported by IAP and BIF are hitting against the age-old challenges of smallholder productivity and/or are already trying out mobile-based solutions at a local level. In Malawi’s AfriNut project (BIF), traceability is important but without technology the paperwork is huge.  In India, mKRISHI (BIF) is providing interactive farmer services), and in Ghana, Ignitia (IAP) is providing weather forecasting for farmers in Ghana.    Almost across the board, mobile-based payments are an option that could help farmer-focused high-volume low-margin decentralized business models work.   Project experience is showing that there are multiple players – large and small – moving in this space, and that getting the business model that works - for revenues, costs, finance and scale - is not so simple.  But the opportunities outlined here are underway.


Tom Harrison shares his reflections on this report urges us all to engage to pilot and scale these ideas.

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Tags: Agriculture and food, Challenges, Editor's Choice, IT-enabled solutions

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Comment by Simon Martin on November 16, 2011 at 16:02

It is great to see the Vodafone-Accenture-Oxfam report generating much enthusiasm and debate, particularly in terms of what it means "at the coalface" of the five countries. The question on how this relates to Vodafone's core business interests (or other MNO) is an interesting one and the link not an obvious one at first glance. I thought the comment in the forward from Vittorio Colao was an interesting insight, talking about the benefits of sector strengthening throughout the value chain being good business for them as provider of telecomm services to those industries at a local and global level. The concepts of shared risk, investment, benefit and value inherent in that model show the need for good intra- as well as cross-sector partnering to make it all work. Hopefully BIF can play a catalytic role in providing both the glue for these partnerships as well as providing other capabilities and expertise required to deliver the outcomes we all want to see! 

Comment by Karen Smith on November 4, 2011 at 9:57
Talking of data ownership (and off at a bit of a tangent) ... we had a meeting recently with Patricia Mwase from Credit Data. She is setting up a credit rating agency in Malawi and is keen to use MFI data to get ratings for smallholders who have microloans. The whole concept seemed ambitious and although in the long term a credit rating system is going to be important in an economy, in the short term is data integrity for records of microloans and even individual identities robust enough to help people prove their creditworthiness? Or is it going to be a stick with which to stop the poorest of the poor ever accessing finance after one bad debt??
Comment by Editor's Choice on November 4, 2011 at 8:19
Thanks Georgie, good points.  The example of Agrotech brings back to mind the key question of who owns this mobile data?    As you say, if data from farm level can be channeled up into the supply chain, efficient decisions can be made.  If farmers themselves can own, or at least have a record of that data, it helps them with their own decisions and perhaps their capacity to secure credit and inputs.   But if data is collected by outsiders 'about the farmers', efficiencies may be gained by others, but missing an opportunity for further farmer gain.  Thanks for the link.
Comment by Georgina Turner on November 3, 2011 at 9:12

I thought this was a great document - I would really recomend a look at it, even if just the executive summary. It is a good insight into the options available for mobile technology and shows the scale of the impact.

What was missing for me though was the use of mobile technology is getting information back from the value chain. So for example receiving critical information in terms of the conditions and activities on the ground. Gathering a robust dataset from many geographies can help guide a whole number of strategies. What springs to mind is gathering yield information from farmers in a quick and effective manner. This could then be passed to input supply dealers, extension workers or finance institutions who can target the area. In Malawi a company called Agrotech Ltd are beginning some interesting work in this area http://www.agrotechltd.com/home/about-agrotech.

 

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