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.

The agriculture of today and tomorrow is all about data

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Interview with Benjamin Kwasi Addom

Dr Benjamin Kwasi Addom is an agricultural information specialist. As a Programme Coordinator at CTA he focuses on using new ICTs to support extension and advisory services.

The use of ICT for agriculture (ICT4Ag) is a prominent feature of CTA’s new strategy. Why are ICTs so integral to the transformation of agriculture in ACP regions?

To achieve effective agricultural transformation, farmers need tools and technologies that can help them address issues such as low productivity, weak market linkages, and dysfunctional policies – these are all a key part of CTA’s strategy. Such a transformation is especially needed in Africa, where smallholder farmers provide about 60% of food for the population.

To help farmers increase their production, we need to take advantage of the tools that can provide customised information and messages for farmers on what to do, how to do it and when to do it. This is a role that ICTs can play, helping provide farmers with timely information that is precise and locally relevant. Location-based solutions are enabling producers to find relevant markets for their goods, and consumers to trace the sources of their items. ICTs also have a role in facilitating agricultural transformation at the policy level. CTA works with decision-makers in over 79 ACP countries and these partners need access to accurate data to help them introduce effective policies that drive agricultural processes and the efficient allocation of resources.

The ICT4Ag sector is evolving very quickly. Which of the technologies that you are working on are you most excited about?

Agriculture – today and tomorrow – is about data. Hence, remote-sensing technologies such as unmanned aerial vehicles – otherwise known as drones – satellite images, and other ground vehicles equipped with sensors are helping to capture data not only on farmers, and so on – stakeholders along the entire value chain. Using these technologies gives location-specific data which is key to making cost-effective decisions and providing needs-based services. This data can be used to build an inventory of farmers’ assets to demonstrate why service providers should engage them in business.

Images from satellites and drones, however, only show the surface picture, they don’t go down into the soil. Yet, if these images are integrated with soil sensors, water sensors, moisture sensors, etc., then we can increase the value of the data and provide better services to farmers. This is what we refer to as precision agriculture and, at CTA, we are promoting its use among smallholder farmers in Africa. The technology may not be the same as that used by farmers in The Netherlands or the US, but it’s still very precise – to the level that smallholder farmers can make better decisions.

A variety of ICT4Ag approaches are also working together to increase the productivity and profitability of farmers and help build their resilience to the changing climate. With the right combination of images, sensors and mobile technologies, for example, we are able to know which part of the field needs a particular kind of fertiliser, so we can inform producers on how to apply it judiciously, helping to minimise wasteful use of inputs. A combination of ICT4Ag technologies is also enabling inclusive financial services. In our MUIIS (Market-led, User-owned ICT4Ag-enabled Information Service) project in Uganda, for example, farmers are able to pay for services through their mobile phone. The index-based insurance product provided through this project is based on the GPS location of farmers’ fields and they receive their insurance pay outs via their mobiles.

With the rapid development of these technologies farmers must have concerns about the information that is being collected about them. What is CTA doing in terms of making sure that data is used appropriately?

Of course farmers have concerns and CTA is also concerned about all the data we are facilitating. For example, the farmers in our MUIIS project were worried that recording their farms’ GPS coordinates and the size of their fields would lead to the takeover of the land by the government. We are gathering data about them and their fields, and they naturally want to know how we are going to use it. I think the most important thing is to create awareness of the value of the data. It takes training, capacity building, education, and awareness creation about the increasing importance of this data for accessing credit and other services. In fact, for the MUIIS project, we are working on a slogan that states, “The more [data] you give, the better the services we provide to you.”

We also still need to go beyond this to explain how the data is used. A number of projects and systems that we work with will tell you that raw data is not usually used. Most of the time it is processed and then can be made anonymous with identities taken out, but it still has value for end users. For example, in Uganda, we created a huge database with over 150,000 farmers, who each answered more than 20 detailed questions. This is a huge dataset that still has value without farmers’ personal details. Financial institutions are looking for this kind of data to have a general idea of how, for example, maize production is distributed in Uganda. They may not be interested in specific farms, but in a region or district. These companies can get all that they need to know about things such as how mobile phones are being used and which mobile network operators are serving different segments of producers without having the personal details of the individuals.

So concerns are there, but we have to educate farmers about how their data is being used so that they are willing to release what they have and we can use it to provide better services to them.

Do you see age discrepancies in terms of how ICTs are picked up and used by farmers or do you see an encouraging trend that even older farmers are willing to try these new technologies?

Of course age is a factor! But we are doing our best to reduce the gap. We are using middlemen to improve digital literacy – young people who are willing to try new technologies and have the desire to use it. Once they take these technologies up, they will be able to convince older farmers to use them as well. But technologies are becoming easier and easier for everybody to use. A few years ago, mobile phones didn’t even have camera features, but now even an old lady living in a rural village, like my mum, can take a picture of herself once she has been shown what to press. So the barrier is there but we need to do more to improve digital literacy and this is key to a number of CTA’s activities. Through CTA’s MUIIS project farmers are trained on the navigation of smart phones. For example, they learn how to send a message and how to take a picture of a disease or pest in their field. So with these efforts, I think the digital literacy barrier may not close completely but will gradually be minimised as the years pass by.

CTA is obviously investing a lot into ICT4Ag and part of this is the recent development of an Apps4Ag database. How is this helping different stakeholders in the sector?

The Apps4Ag database aims to achieve a number of goals. One of them is to link young entrepreneurs who have interesting apps to potential investors. So the database is intended to make information about new apps available for investors to quickly find.

Another goal is to help young entrepreneurs with the development of new apps. Many of these young people come out of university with their degree in computer science and are eager to develop an app, but they don’t carry out market research to see what is already there. Instead, they get straight into developing a new app and sometimes realise that a similar app is already in the market. With the Apps4Ag database, they will be able to look up what is already out there to enable them to identify the gaps in the market, so they don’t invest their time and financial resources on something that is already available.

We also know that international development partners have difficulties finding the information they need on apps. With this database they can see which apps are located where and with what technology so that they can decide how to integrate them into their projects. Big development players, such as the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and others approach CTA to find out about ICT4Ag both in a specific country and across ACP countries. So at the backend of this database, we can pull data together to provide high level information about the use of ICTs in agriculture.

The database was launched in December 2017, and it is our intention to improve upon it. We will also work with app developers to regularly feature interesting apps on the front page of the website, new features for a given app, and an app of the week/month, etc.

CTA is not the only organisation working in the ICT4Ag field. What is unique about how it works in this sector and the value its work adds?

There are three areas that I can talk about that make CTA unique. The first is promotion and awareness creation among youth, the second is scaling out solutions through partnership building, and the third is linking big data analytics with farmer organisations. CTA is supporting ICT4Ag development in several ways and our approach has been to create awareness about the value of ICTs. For example, the Plug and Play events help to organise entrepreneurs and provide them with platforms to showcase their apps. And then there is the Pitch AgriHack! programme, which helps young entrepreneurs to scale up their ICT4Ag start-ups. The participants’ apps have already been tested and piloted, but need both business and financial support to become profitable. CTA offers them mentorship and opportunities to showcase their business to investors so that they can gain some extra funding to take their business to scale. The Centre also invests in and supports these entrepreneurs with business development services and seed funding to prepare them to sell their business. Most of these young entrepreneurs are techies; they don’t have the skills for business development, hence this support is really useful.

Another unique part of what we do is bringing different partners together to scale a given tool or application. An example of this is the MUIIS project, where we have pulled together partners that have the expertise and skills in index-based insurance, weather forecasting, agronomy, ICTs, user engagement and training. This kind of partnership building is unique to CTA. It is often challenging, but we are able to pull such diverse partnerships together and the MUIIS project is working well in Uganda as a result. We have just submitted another proposal for a similar partnership in Ghana and there are other ongoing partnerships operating in Southern Africa and Eastern Africa on climate resilience and livestock information services respectively. All of these are driven by CTA with a number of partners cooperating to scale out new technologies.

Finally, a number of our competitors and partners focus on big data, but CTA’s emphasis uniquely concentrates on linking farmer organisations and cooperatives with this data to enable them to realise its value. CTA builds the capacity of farmer organisations to become the owners of their data instead of leaving it to the control of governments or private sector companies. We train these organisations to engage in the data profiling process and to manage their database themselves, as well as in data protection and accessibility issues. By taking full ownership of their data, farmer organisations and cooperatives can engage private sector partners for the tools and technologies to transform the raw data into practical information and services.