The need for a holistic approach to deploying CSA digital tools

Opinion

 

Our ecosystems, biodiversity and food security are under threat due to the impacts of extreme climate changes across the globe. The adoption of climate-smart agriculture (CSA) technologies and practices is thus more pertinent than ever – particularly for developing countries, such as Ghana, where agriculture is mainly rain-fed. The majority of the population in Ghana are smallholders and productivity for most crops is already below optimal levels, so farming losses due to weather disruptions are hugely impactful.

Smallholders need CSA information now more than ever to manage and improve their farming outcomes. The realisation of this has led many organisations (both private and public) to develop digital tools to promote CSA across the developing world.

Opportunities for digital solutions

Agricultural profiling and messaging service provider, Esoko, for example, has developed a range of mobile-based information services to improve smallholder knowledge. Since 2008, the company has been providing smallholders with weather information, market price updates, and infromation on CSA practices via SMS, voice messages and through their call centre. Studies have shown that this information is helping to improve incomes for smallholder farmers in Ghana.

For example, a recent survey by CGIAR’s Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) on their ‘Upscaling climate information services and technologies through IT-led public-private partnership business models’ project with Esoko, showed how access and use of climate information has resulted in increased crop yields and a 70% reduction in crop failure. Project farmers used seasonal forecasts provided via SMS and voice messaging to make strategic decisions, such as when to start land preparation, when to plant, what crop varieties to plant and when to apply manure or inorganic chemical fertilisers.

Challenges remain

In deploying CSA digital tools for over 10 years, Esoko has gained in-depth experience of the challenges that exist, including issues of illiteracy and limited tech literacy among farmers. Although many Ghanaian smallholders own mobile phones, for example, most cannot operate them fully or read text messages. Training and education for farmers is therefore a key consideration when deploying digital solutions and therefore, although a digital service provider, Esoko relies heavily on its field deployment team to train farmers on how to interpret text messages from the company and implement the information received.

Educating farmers on what climate change is and its effects is also important to encourage farmers to change entrenched farming habits, such as bush burning, which may be considered traditional but are harmful to the environment. The channels used to deliver CSA digital services are also important. A survey conducted on Esoko farmers revealed that over 50% prefer voice messages over SMS due to high illiteracy rates. Further, although many smallholders have phones, these are usually feature phones and not smart phones, which rules out using formats such as video. To address this, Esoko opened a farmer helpline in 2003 through which farmers can interact with agricultural experts in their local languages.

Unfortunately, phone ownership amongst female farmers in some rural communities in Ghana is very low – of the 40,667 farmers who accessed Esoko’s call center in 2018, only 19% were female. This representation exposes the gender disparity in mobile phone ownership and hence access to digital-based CSA information.

CSA digital tools plus support services

In conclusion, CSA digital tools have the potential to meet the needs of smallholder farmers. However, the deployment of these solutions must consider the local context of farmers in order to achieve real impact. CSA digital tools should not be deployed in isolation. Instead, a holistic approach including education, training and other support services must be pursued to reinforce their impact.