Cultivating data

Finding our way in the digital jungle

You know. Nobody hides a light under the table.
If you have a great idea, you just have to share it!

But… who decides if your idea is great? Is it still great, if it doesn’t work? 

Let me ask you this. What is happening?

Digitalisation could be the boost, but instead it has gotten us confused.

On top of the table, there are many grants. To develop many apps.

At the bottom of the table, there are millions of farmers, whose problems persist.

Are you confused? That’s how confused farmers are, too.

And in the meantime, while the climate changes everything… how do we dig DEEPER?

And so… is this the farmer’s way? What could be their way? What could be their way?

How can we make the potential of advanced digitalisation work for entrepreneurial food actors? Three individuals with diverse expertise share their unique perspectives.

“People feel bombarded,” says Vivian Opondoh, referring to the proliferation of apps and information competing for the attention of farmers in the global South such as Nana, a medium-scale agripreneur featured in the digitalisation case study, who memorably remarks that “if we could eat apps, we would never go hungry.” Vivian knows what she’s talking about. As the engineer and entrepreneur behind Farmula – a start-up she launched in 2019 with the goal of “aggregating data in the agricultural supply chain to improve information on yield and price” – she’s working to establish visibility for and confidence in her service among farmers and buyers across Africa. A billion Nanas, if you will.

“When we started, it took a year just to establish the lines of communication,” reports Vivian on the frustrations and challenges she has faced in establishing Farmula. “There’s no visibility when it comes to having one destination for collaboration.” 

Marieke de Ruyter de Wildt, founder of The New Fork, the Amsterdam-based organisation that harnesses the power of blockchain technology to promote transparency in the global food system, agrees that the current moment is a “messy” one. More positively, she says, such “digital chaos” can be framed as the period that precedes significant progress when uptake of any new technology moves between the “decentralised” and “distributed” phases of its rollout. 

For inspiration, we need look no further than the all-consuming rectangle of glass and steel in our pocket, says Marieke. “Look at what we thought of mobile phones ten years ago. We were so negative about the phone. Now we’re all on the phones, all the time,” she says. For Nana et al, the surfeit of options can feel uncomfortable and confusing – bewildering, even. But Marieke counsels perseverance across the board: “The fourth industrial revolution [will result in] a distributed network that's a more resilient and reliable network and less corruptible.” 

Abdallah Ekow Manuar Smith, an agripreneur at Gaia Greenfields Ltd, works closely with Ghanaian farmers and has insights to share based on his experience of this working relationship. “Gaia Greenfields wants to show that you can use a small plot of land sustainably and still make money,” he says. To this end, Abdallah is intimately involved with the dissemination of information via Excel spreadsheets and - increasingly - the mobile economy. 

He warns that well-meaning initiatives can easily become hamstrung by a failure on the part of developers to account for realities on the ground. The disconnect between agriculture and the digital space needs to be addressed. “There are fundamental missing links and huge gaps,” he says. Inaccurate weather updates can spell at best inconvenience and at worst ruin for independent farmers. Reliance on rainfall that doesn’t materialise can necessitate unexpected expenditure on water, for example. The internet may prove inaccessible from the farm, either because of patchy coverage or the lack of financial resources to pay for data.

Of course, even exemplary services are highly likely to fail to achieve their intended purpose or be abandoned altogether when implementers ignore the literacy, skills, culture and demands of its target users. Therefore, governments should be proactive in creating the space necessary for digitalisation. If you create the space that enables tech solutions to thrive, people will come.  Donors and INGOs should fund and focus on those actors who are already in the tech space, and if the space is not good enough for businesses to thrive, they should help businesses to create that space. In addition to this need for a good infrastructure, by far the biggest consideration is the establishment of trust. “We are trying to bring two worlds together, and that’s why trust is important. It’s really about the trust you have with the people you are working with. My farmer is full of pride, and it took me a while to realise it was all about respect,” says Vivian.  

The panel agrees that, in spite of the challenges, there is plenty of cause for optimism. Vivian points out that, whereas the majority of small-scale farmers in the global South have inherited their agricultural role from previous generations (“they aren’t farming by choice,” she observes), there is an ascendant generation of agripreneurs who are proactive, digitally-literate and highly engaged with the possibilities of sustainable agricultural technologies such as hydroponics. “When it comes to [bridging] the disconnect,” says Vivian, “we can start training the generation that’s coming, the future farmers so that when they come into the space, they are bringing their own solutions.”

Digitisation: More Than We Can Chew?
A bumper crop of digital options awaits farmers in the global South. But how to stop overabundance from sowing the seeds of confusion? 

Nana is a young, African female. A medium-scale agripreneur and vegetable producer, she contributes partly to the domestic market. At 37, she dearly wants to provide jobs for her community and security for her family. Noble goals, and theoretically achievable ones, too. But Nana is “digitally confused,” meaning that, as much as she may wish to access the right information for her business in the right context, she feels overwhelmed by the plethora of options, some of which have proven to be unreliable. “So many apps,” she says, “but which one is really meant for me?” 

So, digital confusion is Nana’s main challenge. But others include: barriers to strengthening her workers’ skills the difficulty of equal access to opportunity, since gendered expectations can leave her both overstretched and excluded from knowledge-enhancing situations. 

In an effort to provide clarity for people such as Nana, during an interactive breakout session, participants considered and rejected various initiatives. For example, partnering with a telecoms provider to provide free data to farmers, and using influencers to seed appropriate, targeted information. The discussions subsequently switched towards the concept of an “ethical super platform”, to help farmers in the global South to sort the digital wheat from the chaff. In essence, the tabled solution is a plug-in chatbot designed to refer users to the exact source of information they need. 

Accessibility is key, and it was deemed paramount to meet users where they already are, rather than expecting time-pressed, data-conscious farmers to go out and find the bot. “The platform is independently owned and designed to meet users at low-key entry points such as Facebook,” explains Lisanne van Oosterhoud (World Food Forum: Youth Champion), who helped develop the proposal. “Nana can ask her question and quickly get an answer, or be referred to whichever app or source is best for her.” 

“The beauty of this is that it’s super scalable,” said Britt de Lange of Bopinc, while pitching the initiative’s suitability across a host of markets. “The chatbot is self-learning and connects to local tech talent with an understanding of the cultural and linguistic context. By creating trust and generating the feedback necessary for optimising the algorithm effectively, this chatbot can become the go-to resource. Ideally, there would be a sense [in farming communities] that, if you’re not using it, you’re losing out.” 

A consideration tabled via Mentimeter was that such a service shouldn’t exclude the illiterate, something the pitch team had already considered. The chatbot will incorporate voice-based functionality. 

The idea was very well received by the panel delegates around the World Food Day Table of Plenty. Guido Landheer, Director of European, International and Agro-Economic Policy at the Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality was a big admirer of the concept, remarking that he could see the potential for convening meetings in embassies with a view to establishing proof of concept at a local level. “I can imagine you could organise a challenge for local students to write a business plan for this and step it up to the next level,” he said.

The group behind the proposal agreed that vigilance is required at every stage. “To achieve impact and make this come to life, we need to facilitate a better connection between app developers and farmers,” Lisanne commented on behalf of the team. “What we’re aiming for here is a virtuous feedback loop, one that can make a positive impact that finds its own momentum.”

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