In most developing countries, public extension services have been on the decline due to the shortage and limited skills of field extension personnel and inadequate funding. This has led to limited access for smallholders to agriculture technologies and services. On the contrary, there has been rapid digital growth, with more than 80% of the population in developing countries having access to a basic phone, and over 50% to internet use. Digital platforms offer smallholders the ability to access agricultural information and services faster, cheaper and more efficiently than traditional in-person visits. For instance, SMS messaging is offering information consistently, in a simple format, to any mobile device and in the farmers’ native tongue.
To support a transition to more sustainable climate-smart agriculture (CSA) practices in developing countries, researchers and development practitioners have leveraged digital advances to design a range of tools. The tools aim to support wide-scale adoption of CSA for improved productivity, adaptation and climate mitigation.
The International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), for example, designed Geofarmer, a mobile application for registering farmers, collecting demographic and geospatial information, and monitoring the uptake of CSA practices. The tool also provides near real-time, two-way communication between agricultural experts and farmers. The design of the tool is simple, with easy-to-learn functionalities to overcome low levels of digital literacy frequently found in rural areas.
CIAT has also developed the 5Q Approach, which offers effective feedback between CSA implementers and farmers. The 5Q Approach uses interactive voice response technology at regular intervals throughout a CSA project to ask a set of five ‘smart’ questions about a specific practice or technology in a particular geographical site. Project implementers receive quick feedback on the beneficiaries’ knowledge, attitudes, and skills on the practice/skill. In addition, farmers can provide feedback throughout the project, which allows for not only a better understanding of their needs but also for solution provision.By integrating digital technology, 5Q offers a fast, easy-to-use, and cost-effective approach that traditional monitoring, evaluation and learning methods do not.
Although digital extension can reach significant numbers of farmers, this does not however automatically correspond with higher impact on the farm. The Digitalisation of African Agriculture Report released this year highlights that digital solutions offered to smallholder farmers fail to obtain a high frequency of sustained use. Digital approaches remain limited by the poor infrastructure and services currently available in developing areas, and low levels of digital literacy.
In designing their CSA digital tools, CIAT took these issues into account. To address the challenge of digital illiteracy, for instance, the team developed a two-tier approach for 5Q that allows for both user-direct and facilitated use of the tool. In the case of Geofarmer, an offline functionality was developed to deal with the challenge of poor cellular coverage.
Scaling CSA digital tools
In reality, the characteristics in the adoption pathway for CSA digital technology will be similar to those of other agricultural solutions. The starting point is to build awareness among farmers about a new technology; they will then test it out and decide whether to adopt it over time. There is thus the need to invest in establishing trust in the tool by farmers and carrying out long-term engagement with them. One successful approach used by CIAT has been working with institutions and individuals with good standing in the local communities in co-developing, testing and implementation of the tools. These included agriculture representatives of various ministries at the local level and agricultural extension officers.
CSA digital solution providers also need to establish mechanisms for providing training, and for farmers to share their experiences amongst themselves and with others on the use of digital tools. We see that the development of many CSA digital tools is often supported through short-term projects; this compromises the ability to accommodate iterative processes in the design, development, testing and implementation of the tools with farmers.
In the example of CIAT, observations and transect walks with local experts, researchers and youth facilitators were used to gain experiences on the use of the CSA digital tools in the field. The feedback received was crucial in improving the new versions of the applications. In particular, aspects of geographical context such as language, culture, production systems, digital infrastructure and digital literacy levels are key considerations in developing and modifying CSA digital tools to meet the needs and capacities of smallholder farmers.