The Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA) shut down its activities in December 2020 at the end of its mandate. The administrative closure of the Centre was completed in November 2021.

Driving agriculture's digitalisation for development

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Interview with Ben Addom

Dr Ben Addom, CTA’s ICTs for Agriculture Team Leader, speaks on some of the trends of digital agriculture, as highlighted in the CTA/Dalberg report, and the potential of the sector to transform future farming.

You describe the last 10 years as the ‘ICT4Ag’ decade, why is that? How would you describe the next 10 years?

In the last decade, stakeholders working in the sector have focused strongly on two key issues: first, promoting digital agriculture (ICT4Ag) solutions. We have been at the forefront of cutting-edge technologies, identifying new innovations and providing training in digital literacy etc. for the use of these technologies. Secondly, we have been supporting activities that enable the right environment for these solutions to work. A big part of this has been in supporting the development of infrastructure, policies and strategies, as well as exchanging knowledge through social media, conferences/workshops, communities of practice, etc. These are the two components that I think define the ‘ICT4Ag’ age.

The next decade should be ‘digitalisation for agriculture’ (D4Ag). What differentiates the ‘D4Ag age’ from the ‘ICT4Ag age’ are two additional areas – business development, and big data and analytics. Without viable business models behind the solutions, it is difficult to ensure sustained use by farmers and other intermediaries. And sustained use requires quality data and content, which is driven by big data and analytics.

From our experience, it is difficult to convince any investor – whether the big tech firms or agribusinesses – to put money into these solutions as they need to be persuaded that there is minimal risk. So, once we are able to prove this business potential of smallholder digital agriculture, we will be able to attract businesses – financial institutions, agro-input dealers, aggregators, etc. – who need the data to engage with farmers as business partners. This is what it will take to move from the conventional ‘ICT4Ag’ approach to a more business ‘D4Ag’ approach.

The recent CTA/Dalberg Advisors report points to the donor support that has been driving digitalisation for development, but are you saying that it’s because the business case hasn’t been built that we have not yet seen the impact that was intended?

The business case is just one of the reasons! I think we need to acknowledge the investments made by donors and international development partners, such as CTA, over the years, laying the foundation for D4Ag as I described earlier. They have done a good job by helping to show the potential of the technologies through the development of the solutions, and proof of concept cases on the ground. But there are a lot of things that are lacking. Firstly, investments are not coordinated, each investor has their own agenda, launching their calls for proposals based on conflicting goals and so, developers respond to these calls just to secure money to operation. As a result, solution developers dance to the tune of the donors’ money, doctoring their concepts to secure available funding rather than reacting to the reality.

The second reason is that these donor-driven initiatives have a short duration of 3 to 5 years investment, making it difficult to develop the product and take it to market. So, there is a risk that by the time the product has reached market, the grant has finished, there is no strong business model, users are unable to pay for the service and the service collapses.

The other factor is the piecemeal nature of investment. Scattered and uncoordinated investments by donors focus on outputs (on numbers) instead of results or impact, which again is due to the short duration of the funding model. Having to prove that a project has a defined reach in an evaluation report, for example, places the focus on the number of farmers digitally registered with a particular platform, so it does not really consider the impact or the result. I therefore think that we need a concerted level of investment and, by inviting consolidated and harmonised investment, that would actually change the whole story.

The final element is the fact that we do not have standard key performance indicators (KPIs) to monitor outcomes or impact in the field. There are results, there are good impacts of digitalisation on agriculture, but, because of the lack of standard KPIs to measure, track and monitor projects, there is scepticism of the results, which are not recognised because they are not scientifically validated. Therefore, it is very difficult to say that this sector is benefitting smallholder farmers.

In terms of how D4Ag is going to evolve, how do you work to ensure that these new developments in digitalisation are going to help narrow rather than widen the gap in terms of access – particularly for women?

At CTA, we have moved far away from simply promoting technologies and towards promoting solutions, services and products that farmers can feasibly use. Digital technologies, such as sensors, big data, blockchain and Internet of Things, are not used directly by farmers, but by the technology firms that develop them. It is not about technology or how solutions are developed, but how we approach the technologies, plus, the stakeholders that are promoting it need to be able to make these solutions accessible to all. For example, we need to make sure that the technology solutions are accessible to women and youth organisations.

How else does the report and the authors see this sector changing?

It is difficult to predict because of the pace at which technologies are moving and it is one of the big issues we had when working on the report because, while you can predict something today, tomorrow it could be disrupted with the advent of new technology. Despite that, we highlighted several trends that we think we should watch. One regards investment as we are increasingly seeing that the private sector – even big technology companies – are scouting to see whether there is potential profit in the sector.

We also expect the data revolution to turn things around regarding data capture and sensor technologies, with the use of drones and satellite images, making it easier for us to send location-based services to farmers and other users. If this is done, we will see more precision agriculture and then businesses coming in to the sector, due to the sustainability of these services. Once we are able to do that, we can move from trying to focus on customers paying for a service to where businesses pay for the services.

Finally, one of the components that I mentioned under the ‘ICT4Ag age’ is infrastructure development. We see connectivity improving and lots of investment in public goods like databases, digital payment services, strategies and policies. This improvement and investment in turn is likely to drive down the cost of access.

So, the report is going to be launched in Africa at the AGRF in your home country, if you were only able to say one key message out of the 200-plus pages of rich information that is in the report, what would it be?

There is huge potential for D4Ag, but it is not all about technology. If the four components stated above – intersection of digital solutions, business development, big data and analytics, and the enabling environment – are all combined, this is how digitalisation can transform smallholder agriculture.