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Boosting food security in the Pacific with innovative technologies

27 April 2021

Who could have predicted that two innovative mobile applications, each the winner of a Pacific Agrihack Lab grant in late 2018, would go on to make a difference in the lives of Pacific Islanders during the pandemic, just over a year later?

Even before the pandemic, ICT4Ag (Information and Communications Technologies for Agriculture) was catching on in the Pacific. The 2018 Agrihack Lab competition, part of the Innov4AgPacific regional grant funded by IFAD and the EU/CTA, was one of several competitions and workshops designed to connect and innovate Pacific agribusiness and value chain development.

In recent years, ICT solutions like these apps have become indispensable for doing business in the agriculture sector. Farmers and fishers need access to up-to-date information to improve their livelihoods. Businesses are looking to ICTs to diversify their marketing strategies. Development practitioners are increasingly reliant on mobile technologies for remote assessments and surveys. And consumers, of course, are relying more and more on e-commerce to purchase goods and services.

But during 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic progressed, Pacific Islanders found their usual food supply chains disrupted – and digital agriculture solutions suddenly had a new role to play. In particular, two apps developed during the 2018 Agrihack Lab turned out to have a much bigger impact than anyone had anticipated.

Fit for purpose

Kenneth Katafono was one of the winners of the 2018 Agrihack grant. He used the funds to develop TraSeable Farms, an app that could be integrated with his company’s platform to form a one-stop-shop for Pacific farmers and agribusinesses. The app offers technical content on farming practices, up-to-date information on weather and other events, recordkeeping tools to manage and track farm activities, and market information such as pricing trends, so farmers can see which markets are offering the best prices for their products. The app also includes a simple online marketplace to help producers find new buyers.

TraSeable Farms launched in Fiji in June 2020, just as the socio-economic impacts of the pandemic were intensifying. At that time, food and nutrition assistance was urgently needed, and the Government of Fiji and local organizations like FRIEND were looking to quickly mobilize support. TraSeable partnered with FRIEND, leveraging its digital platform to monitor and evaluate several elements of FRIEND’s food security programme, including requests for food and medical assistance, the seed distribution programme, and home garden training initiatives.

As the pandemic continued, it became imperative to have real-time data about its impacts on domestic food markets and prices. Since its app already had the capacity to track market prices, TraSeable was uniquely positioned to pilot a potential solution: crowdsourcing market price data. A group of 68 participants used the app to gather price information for an identical “basket” of 20 common food items sold in markets throughout Fiji, Samoa and the Solomon Islands. In the month of July 2020, TraSeable and its partners collected a total of 30,184 market price data points across 21 locations in the three countries.

This impressive experiment did more than just prove the viability of crowdsourcing market prices: it provided a reliable indication of domestic food costs in each country. It even piqued the interest of government staff, who hope to use an app like this in the future to make their other data collection tasks more efficient.

Close-up of the TraSeable Farms app in use. Photo courtesy of TraSeable Solutions.

Scaling up community action

My Kana, another Pacific Agrihack grant winner, was born out of a collaboration between the University of the South Pacific and the National Food and Nutrition Centre (NFNC) of Fiji’s Ministry of Health and Medical Services. Its goal is to improve dietary diversity and nutrition, and to promote the practice of keeping home gardens. The app’s My Garden component includes information and step-by-step videos on everything from planting, cultivation, and managing garden pests, to container gardening for urban and peri-urban residents, to techniques for food preservation. It even offers recipes that make use of local produce.

The app launched in January 2020 and quickly began attracting positive attention on social media. Then, as lockdowns commenced and most aspects of public life shut down, many Fijians turned to home gardening to save money and improve their food security.

“The important role of the My Kana home garden app became even more apparent during the COVID-19 outbreak,” says Ateca Kama, manager of the NFNC.

When Fiji’s Ministry of Agriculture officially began recommending home gardening as a national response to the pandemic, My Kana was promoted in all their trainings. My Kana complemented scaling up the response. By the end of June 2020, there were over 1,100 active users. To date, the app has been downloaded more than 5,000 times and over 200 gardens have been established thanks to the app.

Building resilient food systems

A major takeaway from the Agrihack Lab was the importance of bringing together, often for the first time, Pacific value chain stakeholders and technology professionals. Farmers and youth, agribusiness owners and IT developers, came together to discuss challenges within the agriculture and food sector and identify new solutions.

Importantly, these ICT tools were developed by Pacific Islanders, for Pacific Islanders. Innovations like TraSeable Farms and My Kana are proof positive that tools like these, created by local talent, are a crucial part of modernizing food value chains and building resilient, nutrition-sensitive food systems – especially because the people fixing the food system are the same people who work within it.

For more information, check out Innov4Ag’s Case Study on Pacific ICTs.

Learn more about IFAD’s work in FijiSamoa, and the Solomon Islands.