How can digital technologies help rural farming communities?

  • COVID-19 has made us all dependent on digital technology, but we must ensure that the world’s poorest are not left behind.
  • In particular, digital technologies can improve the lives of farmers and agricultural workers.
  • Digital agriculture – where farmers use digital technologies to access useful information – could revolutionize the way communities secure their livelihoods.

With COVID-19 having made us all more dependent on digital technology than ever before, now is the time to ensure that the revolution does not leave the world’s poorest communities further behind. Increasing investments in technologies to help small farmers will bring huge benefits long after the pandemic is over.

The COVID-19 pandemic is reshaping societies around the world, in part by accelerating the digital revolution that was already underway at the start of the year. Since then, companies have introduced mass teleworking. International gatherings are now held online, with the participation of heads of state and industry from home. Students are learning remotely, and digital payments are more of a substitute for cash.

But with technology influencing our lives more than ever, there is a risk that it will spread unevenly, entrenching existing inequalities and leaving the world’s poorest people further behind. It is not inevitable. Digital technologies can help eradicate poverty and hunger more quickly in the world, including in rural areas of developing countries, where the majority of people make their living from agriculture.

Digital agriculture – in which farmers use cell phones and other digital technologies to access personalized, actionable farming information in real time – could revolutionize the way these communities secure and improve their livelihoods. By making the right investments today, when many agricultural extension workers are not allowed to visit farmers in person, we can kickstart digital adoption and start closing the income gap that has long held back. rural areas.

It goes without saying that family farmers need accurate and up-to-date information as much as any small business. That is why the governments of developed and developing countries have supported farmers for decades with public information campaigns. The oldest radio soap opera in the world, The Archers, was created in the 1950s to help farmers increase their agricultural productivity following rationing and food shortages during World War II.

Today, most farmers in the most remote places of the world have cell phones and are therefore equipped to receive targeted farming advice through simple text or voice messages, even without internet access. For example, in Odisha, India, Precision agriculture for development provides personalized, crop-specific, free farming advice to nearly 800,000 farmers via their phones.

There is a lot of rigorous evidence that such advice – disseminated widely and at low cost – can improve farmers’ practices. There is also growing evidence that farmers with digital information will increase their yields, income and resilience to shocks. A recent paper co-written by one of us (Kremer) in Science shows that farmers who received numerical recommendations were 22% more likely to adopt recommended agrochemical inputs, reporting $ 10 in profit for every $ 1 spent.

Additionally, while farmers rely on cell phones to receive market information, access bank accounts and monitor weather forecasts, digital technologies present a host of other opportunities for poor rural communities. With the support of the United Nations International Fund for Agricultural Development, remote sensors have been deployed to help farmers optimize water and fertilizer levels for their crops, and drones are being used to identify unhealthy plants so that corrective action can be taken.

Innovations in digital agriculture can also help farmers increase their yields and incomes by adopting locally adapted seeds and fertilizers, protecting crops against diseases and pests (such as the fall armyworm or the locusts), adapting to climate change, selling at the best possible price and accessing financial services. All of these applications can expand farmers’ opportunities and reduce their risks.

In fact, digitization has the potential to transform the agricultural sector in developing countries. But it will require more innovation and strong partnerships between governments, businesses and farmers, as well as a regulatory environment to ensure that the technology remains affordable and accessible.

The private sector should be encouraged to advance, adopt and reorganize technologies for and in collaboration with small farmers. Investing in digital agriculture today offers the promise of a quadruple return.

For starters, digitization can help many of the world’s poorest people weather the COVID-19 crisis, giving them remote access to advice, inputs and markets. Moreover, it can increase the overall food supply and enhance food security through higher yields. Third, it can accelerate the adoption of a proven, cost-effective and scalable strategy to increase long-term agricultural production and improve the livelihoods of poor rural people. And, finally, it can give a voice to farmers, allowing governments to guide and measure the impact of agricultural investments.

But digital is not a panacea. While farmers are increasingly equipped with mobile phones, they also need advice tailored to their needs, as well as access to agricultural inputs (fertilizers and seeds) and markets to sell their products.

While the coronavirus pandemic still runs its course, now is the time to think about not just rebuilding, but building forward. By accelerating investment and innovation in digital agriculture, we can protect the world’s poorest people from some of the worst effects of the current crisis. When we all come out of confinement, it is hoped that we will have already laid the groundwork to build a fairer, more prosperous and more sustainable future.

About Keneth T. Graves

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