Author Joshua Masinde, December 12 2013: Information and communication technology has brought about a paradigm shift in agricultural practice by offering the sector a renaissance of some kind.
The increasing digitisation of agriculture has however, raised a lot of questions, many of which touch on issues of sustainability of the applications, the nature and quality of the information provided, youth and women engagement in digital agriculture among others.
Some experts have also raised important concerns on whether the proliferation of information and communication technology (ICT) platforms in different forms like web, mobile, video, is a bubble that is just about to burst.
Is the hype on the significance of such applications [apps] in transforming rural agriculture too much and are there too many duplicate applications?
Michael Nkonu, an Agriculture Programme Specialist at GSMA’s mAgri Programme, argues many ICT for agriculture applications are concentrated on just feeding farmers with the technical information for production purposes.
There’s need to think of how to scale engagements in mobile agriculture to help farmers beyond the production stage.
“We also need to think about financial transaction. How can we use technology to track data for farmers, enable them access microfinance, insurance systems across their production systems so that they may continue to stay in business?” he asks.
Judith Payne, e-Business Advisor at the United State Agency for International Development (USAID) agrees most ICT for agriculture applications are still at the information provision stage and “haven’t actually moved effectively beyond that level”.
Many smallholder farmers, mostly residing in rural areas, are poor, with many of them unable to access ICT applications for agriculture, further widening the digital divide between urban and rural areas.
Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that out 2.5 billion people in poor countries living directly agriculture sector, 1.5 billion live in smallholder households, with many of them being extremely poor.
In Africa, smallholder farmers, most of who are women, produce 80 per cent of Africa's food yet they are often the most disadvantaged in accessing broadband connectivity and mobile phones, tools that would help them in enhancing productivity through access of agricultural information.
"While our ICT development is growing in Africa, how much penetration is there? The reality is that we have got a huge number of Africans that are not yet covered," observes Bashir Jama, Programme Director, Alliance for Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA).
Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA) and its partners have, however, trained about 2500 people in 29 countries in the use of Web 2.0 applications and social media tools, to enhance their know how for Agriculture and Rural Development.
A lot of the applications are also supply driven, rather than demand driven, thereby becoming short lived. Experts also warn that a proliferation of the "one size fits all" applications simply clogs the smallholder farmer with a lot of information they do not need.
There is also a feeling amongst many stakeholders that applications that support the agricultural sector need to "grow up" and "walk on their own", shedding the donor dependency syndrome.
According to Ms Payne, agriculture apps need to borrow a leaf from mobile money applications if they are to remain relevant and be sustainable. This is just one of the new approaches that the app developers need to pursue, with more emphasis on issues of sustainability issues and social entrepreneurship.
According to Phil Abraham, the Strategic Business Development Director for CAB International, farmers will always pay for information that they value.
"We need a service which allows peer to peer learning and gives farmers access to nearby suppliers able and willing to compete for that farmer’s business; if you like, an eBay for seeds, eBay for fertilizers, an eBay for equipment purchases. The power should move from the farmer to decide who they buy from and the seller has to compete on price," he argues.
MFarm a Kenyan application linking producers to the market is, for instance, making money through commissions earned from successful transactions through its platform. It also sells data to Television and community radio stations and research institutions and also accepts adverts from actors in the agriculture on its platform.
"We have also partnered with KTN (Kenya Television Network), exporters, and local radio stations among other key stakeholders," says Susan Oguya, MFarm’s co-founder.
Recently, however, MFarm received about 235,000 U.S dollars from Kenyan mobile phone operator, Safaricom, to increase transparency in the crop market and enhance best practices in agriculture.
[Editor's note: Journalist Joshua Masinde attended the International Conference on ICT4ag, which was co-hosted by the Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA) and the Rwandan Ministry of Agriculture and Animal Resources (MINAGRI), November 4-8 2013, Kigali, Rwanda.]