Digital agriculture: key to helping small-scale producers overcome COVID-19 challenges
15 January 2021
As we begin 2021 and approach the first anniversary of the beginning of the global COVID-19 pandemic, it’s an important moment to take stock on the impact of the pandemic, and to reflect on what we have learned, and what we can do better going forward. The World Bank has estimated that as many as 124 million people around the globe have been pushed into extreme poverty in 2020, 60 per cent of whom live in South Asia. For the first time in 20 years, poverty has increased significantly, and much of this increase is in rural areas. Smallholder farmers and producers continue to face unprecedented challenges.
But there have been some inspiring aspects of 2020, stories of rural communities adapting and coping, even in the most challenging of circumstances. One of the rising stars is the revolution in pro-poor digital agriculture, and the way in which simple digital tools have been made available to poor farmers for them to access information essential for securing their livelihoods. Many farmers, even in the most remote areas, are now using mobile phones to access customized agricultural information in real time, able to make informed decisions about what to produce and when and where to sell their output. The challenge now is to build on these successes, and ensure that technologies are scaled-up rapidly and that the poorest in the rural areas are not left behind.
To support this process of scaling-up, in August 2020, IFAD entered into a partnership with Precision Agriculture for Development (PAD), a global non-profit organization co-founded by Nobel Prize winning economist Michael Kremer. The partnership is aiming to reach 1.7 million smallholder farmers in Kenya, Nigeria and Pakistan with personalized agricultural advice through their mobile phones, to help them improve their incomes, food security and resilience. At a time when traditional in-person extension services are severely constrained, such phone-based advice is a very attractive and cost-effective proposition.
In terms of the technology itself, one particularly innovative feature, pioneered by PAD, is the use of social learning theory to identify what type of information and delivery mechanisms work best for farmers. This makes it possible to provide information that has been customized to local geography, market, and farmer characteristics.
The impact of the PAD extension approach is impressive. Evidence shows that farmers empowered with high quality digital information will increase yields, incomes, and resilience. A paper in the journal Science suggests that farmers serviced with such information are 22 per cent more likely to adopt recommended agricultural practices.
Since the start of the partnership in August, progress has been rapid. PAD has set up operations in Nigeria, and has begun to roll out phone-content in both Kenya and Pakistan. They have also reached out to on-going IFAD financed projects in all three countries to explore opportunities to scale-up outreach. So far, PAD has managed to reach roughly 1.4 million small farmers.
- In Kenya, the IFAD country team has built bridges between PAD and the Upper Tana Catchment Natural Resource Management Project (UTaNRMP), and will soon engage with the Kenya Cereal Enhancement Programme Climate Resilient Agricultural Livelihoods Window (KCEP-CRAL). The IFAD Country Team has also elevated the initiative to Cabinet Secretaries in the Ministries of National Treasury, Agriculture and Water and Sanitation in order to leverage and anchor PAD’s tailored digital agricultural advisory services in the MoA-INFO (SMS-based) platform.
- In Nigeria, PAD has developed a strong working relationship with the Climate Change Adaptation and Agribusiness Support Programme in the Savannah Belt (CASP) Management Unit, and will reach beneficiaries of this project as the first users of PAD’s services in Nigeria.
- In Pakistan, PAD is in the process of signing an MoU with the IFAD Pakistan team to collaborate through the IFAD-funded Southern Punjab Poverty Alleviation Project (SPPAP). One area of special interest is women’s empowerment, and expanding the coverage of PAD’s services to women farmers in Pakistan.
With the arrival of COVID-19 vaccines, there is renewed hope that an end to the pandemic is now in sight. However, now is not the time for complacency, and it is clear that COVID-19 will continue to disrupt the livelihoods of smallholder farmers for much of 2021. What is important is that governments and development agencies continue to work together to support small farmers to overcome the continued constraints and challenges of a global pandemic. This should include scaling-up investments and innovations in digital agriculture, such as the ones being rolled-out by PAD, which will remain relevant and powerful tools for farmers long after the end of the pandemic. Looking forward, IFAD’s ambition is to continue to work with PAD and other partners, to scale up digital extension solutions, including value chain and weather-related advisory services. The preliminary results from this exciting partnership make a strong the case for long-term investment in digital agricultural extension.