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February 3, 2018

Sustainable agriculture: How tech can help tackle hunger

By Gilbert Houngbo, President, International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD)

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development has given us a framework to eliminate poverty and achieve sustainable food security. A significant part of the efforts to meet those commitments should be focused in the rural areas of the developing world where 70% of the world’s extremely poor people live, including most of the hungry. Improving rural people’s livelihoods and smallholders’ capacities is a central element in ending hunger, achieving food security and improved nutrition, and promoting sustainable agriculture.

There is ample empirical evidence showing that the use of ICTs for Development (ICT4D) can produce better results in the area of agricultural development. For example, an article published in 2014 in the Journal of Development & Agricultural Economics states that “ICTs play a significant role in a country’s development and the strategic application of ICTs to the agricultural sector … offers the best opportunity for economic growth and poverty alleviation”.

ICTs play an important role in fostering local, national and global food security and inclusive rural development by enhancing production and productivity, lowering operating costs, facilitating access to markets, information, credit, and capacity-building, among other things. In fact, over recent decades, we’ve seen the socioeconomic benefits of, for example, mobile telephony in improving the lives of many poor rural people. We’ve seen how, thanks to mobile phones, people who previously were both socially and economically excluded are now actively participating in the economy. By accessing timely and reliable information, farmers can go from being dependent on the information provided by middlemen to being independent negotiators and deal-makers.

In Tanzania, for example, an IFAD-supported project provided rural women and men with information via mobile phones, the Internet and email while giving them access to other key people in the market chain, including processors, traders and consumers. After just one agricultural season, they agreed there had been considerable impact on their access to markets, their production, and their incomes. For an initial investment of USD 200,000, the project’s activities contributed to a gross increase in income of participants of more than USD 1.8 million. Some smallholder farmers doubled or even quadrupled their market volume, demonstrating how responsive they can be when assured of a market and a fair price.

At the same time, ICTs can play a key role in opening new and more challenging opportunities for rural people, especially young people. In Sub-Saharan Africa alone, 17 million young women and men enter the job market every year. Most live in rural areas. They will work with their mobile phones, computers and/or Ipads, but they will not pick up the hoe or the machete of their fathers and mothers. They need and they want technology.

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Finally, ICTs can also help governments and development organizations working to enhance food security and agricultural development in the world to improve their work by accessing better information as well. IFAD’s experience using Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and earth observation to get a clearer picture of land use and environmental degradation, scaled down to the project area, is only one example. Mapping spatial data at the project design stage, and collecting it during implementation, have already led to better beneficiary targeting, and enhanced the capacity of Ministries and universities to utilize such data in their own development strategies and projects.

Looking forward

Extending the use of ICTs to poorer people requires investment in the rural areas where the poor and hungry people live – not just in ICTs, but in basic infrastructure, in social services and in policies that support inclusive rural communities and sustainable agriculture. Without this investment, young people with no hope at home will continue to migrate from villages to overcrowded cities and urban centres, and beyond.

Extending access to ICTs also requires partnerships as no single government, development institution, rural organization, or ICT company can ensure the sustainable, reliable and inclusive provision and use of ICTs in rural areas by itself.

ICTs offer opportunities for private, public and social institutions to work on sustainable, productive, profitable and inclusive partnerships to expand the services and to make them accessible and affordable for those who need it.

Farming, at whatever scale, is a business. To ensure rural people and smallholders continue to play a critical role in global food and nutrition security,
they need access to technology and to information, which are key to their success. They have demonstrated that, with the support of ICTs, rural people
can become reliable and interesting business partners that can comply with market requirements for their specialty products.

ICT for Development in IFAD

IFAD recognizes the centrality of ICTs in general for promoting sustainable and inclusive rural transformation in developing countries, and has included ICTs in its Strategic Framework 2016-2025 by underlining, inter alia, that “expanding the uptake of new ICTs will be a priority. IFAD will leverage the surge in cellular phone ownership to facilitate access to better market information and financial services and products such as credit, savings and insurance, as well as weather information to ensure better capacity to predict rainfall and better preparedness for extreme weather events”.

At the country level, IFAD has been working on ICT programmes for several years. For example, in Zambia, an information service open to smallholder producers and traders was designed in cooperation with the Zambia National Farmers Union (ZNFU) to provide accurate and up-to-date agricultural and market information covering the entire value chain. This allows smallholder producers to make informed decisions about what to grow, volumes required, storage, processing, marketing and investment opportunities. Sending SMS messages to smallholder producers and traders can help them find the best prices on offer for a commodity in the selected area, and contact the buyer who responds to their need. This service can improve the bargaining power of
smallholder producers, by giving them better access to markets and allowing them to deal with traders on an equal footing. Farmers have managed to reduce their transaction costs, and are now producing higher value produces and targeting different markets. Thanks to their weekly updates, farmers are no longer overproducing, thus eliminating storage challenges. Also, policy-makers are using the information service to have up-to-date information to identify price fluctuations and to flag emerging food security challenges.

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In Cambodia, a global strategic partnership between IFAD and Intel Corporation supports smallholders through mobile and IT farm extension
services. Smallholder farmers have been provided a step-by-step software program to analyze soil, determine fertiliser requirements, give advice on best seeds and deal with pests and diseases. Local people have been trained to use the software to sell their services to farmers via mobile, enabling the farmers to improve their practices. Prompted by the software, farmers analyze conditions on their farms and the program gives advice on what to do. The locations of nearby suppliers are also provided.

This software, launched in 500 locations across Cambodia, has helped farmers who were overdosing their rice fields with fertilizers to cut their costs in half. Similar software is being used in India, where it has helped small farmers increase their production by around 300%.

In Yemen, IFAD is investing in forecast problem tree analysis and climate change vulnerability mapping, combining GIS modelling, satellite observations and social vulnerability assessments. IFAD has been able to identify target areas and communities according to their vulnerability to climate change, and to set out the plan for building retaining walls, water catchment ponds, dry wall terraces and other key infrastructure according to local risk levels and the needs of the rural population. This approach reduces biases in project design, and sets a remarkable milestone in the development of monitoring and evaluation systems to assess project achievements. GIS modelling approaches can and are being extended to other hazards (such as dust storms or the threats and opportunities in coastal zones).

These initiatives and services highlight how ICTs play a critical role in fostering food security and promoting rural and agricultural development. They also provide evidence that poor rural people are willing to spend part of their income on ICT services. Investments in ICTs need to reach rural areas, and governments, private companies, and development and farmers’ organizations need to embed and mainstream ICTs in rural development projects and programmes, so we can have many more successful cases such as these. IFAD will work with governments, the private sector, and farmers’ organizations to ensure that ICTs are integrated into development projects and to mobilize much-needed infrastructure for ICTs in rural areas.

While ICTs provide unprecedented opportunities for rural people to access services and information needed for their development, we should always remember that people – not technologies – should remain at the centre of our attention. The better ICTs respond to the demands of people, groups, and communities, and the better their design (according to local circumstances and conditions), the bigger the contribution of ICTs to the achievement of the SDGs.

For more information on #HackAgainstHunger, click here.

For more ways on how ICTs can help achieve the SDGs, take a look at the full report here.

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Sustainable agriculture: How tech can help tackle hunger

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