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“Digitalisation of agriculture will leapfrog challenges women farmers face”

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Interview with Enock Chikava

Deputy director for Agricultural Development, Global Growth & Opportunity at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Enock Chikava, highlights the key role of the public and private sectors to deliver agricultural digitalisation to connect smallholder farmers at scale.

Can you outline the main vision of the Gates Foundation concerning digital transformation for agriculture?

Our mission is that all lives have equal value; regardless of where people are born, we all want the same things. Like everyone else, poor people whose main source of life is farming, want to eat enough nutritious food, have enough income to send kids to school, and have good health care. Today, smallholder agriculture has many challenges; farmers are disaggregated into small units, dispersed and disconnected from functioning market systems. This is a result of poor infrastructure, like roads, water, power, and, also because some farmers have low levels of literacy, and information, services and products do not reach them effectively and in a time. As a result, no one deeply understands how smallholder farmers transact. Owing to this lack of transparency of what they do, smallholder farmers are excluded from all formal market systems and services. Government traditionally provides agronomists and extension officers who advise smallholder farmers, but this has become costly and difficult for most countries in Africa where ratios of extension officers to farmers are very low, for instance, in Tanzania its 4:10,000 and in Nigeria, 3:10,000.

At the Gates Foundation, we are excited about the promise of digital innovations with the cost of tools and data going down. We work to bring about transformative innovations in digital technologies and infrastructure that can help smallholder farmers to be connected at scale, making them more equal in accessing market information, inputs for output markets, and advisory services, which are much needed in a time of climate change. Farmers need to be up to speed with climate-smart innovations in terms of improved seeds and animal breeds, and digital technologies could help in this regard.

This is an area that is evolving rapidly, what do you think are the most promising areas in terms of data collection and digital technologies that you believe are going to make the biggest difference?

It starts with having a vision; we are seeing many African and Indian governments with a vision and strategy around the economy and digital agriculture. Once you have the vision, there is the need for infrastructure. You cannot get into digital agriculture if the infrastructure will not allow connectivity, so we need regulations and policies to attract private sector investment. So, the starting point is the government having that vision and knowing the power of digital innovation in making sure smallholder farmers are connected to the input and output markets, advisory services and to each other for collective action.

India is moving fast in digital innovation with the unique ID, which has been rolled out to 1.2 billion people. This technology uses biometrics to collect farmer information which can be put to many different uses, including administering subsidies. We are working with the State of Andhra Pradesh to deploy soil information systems; they have digitised information around water use, agronomy and extension services and are rolling this out to satellite states. Kenya is a leader in digital payment systems, like, M-Pesa. Rwanda is progressing well, and Ethiopia has some elements, but there are regulations and policies to be improved. So the private sector is coming up with new tools and innovations but equally, we need the government to provide an enabling environment for the development and scaling of digital innovations.

CTA are about to publish this landmark report on digitalisation in agriculture, how do you think it is going to make an impact in terms of what the discussions are about and how people work?

In the developed world, digitalisation is driven by the private sector through the agricultural technology industry (agtech), which meets every year to showcase innovations. We do not have such a forum in Africa; we do not even understand what is going on in this fast-paced industry. However, the CTA report is going to provide the landscape of what is going on – and where – at the small-scale level, and highlight the benefits of digitalisation, which will enable us to engage with governments, the private sector and donors around specific projects.

At the Gates Foundation, we hope the report will dive deeper into some of the use cases on how digital innovations can be deployed. We know that the technology works based on the environment in the developed world, but we need to continually test the robustness and resilience of these business models against challenges in developing countries. So, we are looking to understand small-scale pilots, but we need to use countries and even regions as scaling-units, rather than a proliferation of village-level pilots.

It is good to get people excited and to realise that digitalisation is perhaps the best way to leapfrog many of the challenges we face. However, we need to understand the regulations because, as you begin to collect farmers’ data, there are issues of data security, ownership and sharing. If the data already collected, standardised and analysed remains in the hands and control of the few, it defeats the whole purpose of digitalisation. It is only when the data is widely shared that newcomers do not have to spend the same amount of time and effort collecting the same kind of data. To deploy this technology at the national level, there must be some key role of the government as part of the system. In most cases, the government does not often work in partnership with the private sector, so we need to find better mechanisms for them to work together.

At the Gates Foundation you are very committed to women empowerment but obviously gender challenges still remain. How do you see that challenge within your organisation?

We have four strategic goals within the Gates Foundation’s agriculture programme. We are looking at the productivity of the land and labour of smallholder farmers. We are also looking at the growth of the smallholder farmer incomes per household and at nutrition all year round. The fourth thing is about women’s empowerment. It has been proven many times that when women have access to and control of resources, the family household thrives – nutrition improves, children go to school, farm assets build up and every man should be proud of such a family.

We know that about 60% of smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa are women, so we believe the digitalisation of agriculture will leapfrog some of the challenges women farmers face. For example, women farmers often do not have time to attend field days and farmer training programmes, which means they may miss out on new information, like the release of new seed varieties or new livestock breeds. We believe if they have mobile technologies in their hands, they can access this information and with simplified content, they can better connect to markets and aggregate their produce digitally.