To fix our food systems, we need tech that truly works for smallholder farmers

by Tjada D'Oyen McKenna | Mercy Corps
Tuesday, 21 September 2021 14:16 GMT

A mobile phone application shows the movements of a tractor installed with the Hello Tractor technology that connects farmers with vehicle owners, in Umande village in Nanyuki, Kenya February 4, 2020. REUTERS/Njeri Mwangi

Image Caption and Rights Information

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Digital innovations in food systems aren’t reaching the people who need them most

By Tjada D'Oyen McKenna, CEO of Mercy Corps

The international community will come together at this week’s United Nations Food Systems Summit to address one of the most vital issues facing humanity: how to feed the world in an age of climate change, conflict and an immense population boom. The last year has made it painfully clear just how dire the need is: 270 million people are now facing hunger crises, many because of the pandemic’s disruption to food production, supply chains and incomes.

Food systems are further tested by conflict and the climate crisis, both of which decimate agriculture, destroy infrastructure and prevent people from accessing markets. And with the world’s population expected to increase to 9 billion people by 2050, food production must grow by as much as 70 to 100%. Meeting this challenge requires a transformation of food systems - and technological innovations are critical. But first we must acknowledge a stark truth: digital innovations in food systems aren’t reaching the people who need them most.

Here’s the good news: we have an abundance of evidence that digital technology can help create healthier, more sustainable and more equitable food systems. It can reduce inefficiencies, increase productivity, build resilience to climate change and build more equitable services for women and youth in agriculture. But today, digital technology is falling short in crucial ways: 

1. Most technology is developed for wealthy countries. The bulk of investment in digital technologies is concentrated in high-tech solutions such as remote sensing tools, blockchain and artificial intelligence. These tend to be tailored to large commercial farming systems in high-income countries, rather than to the smallholder farmers who grow one-third of the world’s food. Of the 1.8 billion euros of global investment in agricultural technology in 2019, the Technical Center for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA) estimated less than 10% was invested in digital infrastructure for smallholder farmers in low- and middle-income countries.

2. Technologies aren’t reaching everyone. Even where digital innovations are reaching some smallholder farmers, they haven’t reached scale in a way that can transform food systems. In Africa, while technology for development solutions has reached over 33 million smallholder farmers, CTA estimates only 42% of those who register for access to one of these technologies actually use it. 

3. Women are left out. Women make up the majority of smallholder farmers around the world, but suffer from the digital divide. In many rural communities, technology is considered the male domain; women in Africa are 23% less likely than men to own a mobile phone. As a result, women-led farms are often 20-30% less productive.

At the Food Systems Summit, leaders from government, private sector and development organizations have an opportunity to set us on a path to ensuring technological innovations are effectively applied for those who need them most. Specifically, leaders must: 

1. Invest in technologies tailored to smallholder farmers in low-income countries. The best way to do this is to engage farmers as part of the design and development process. When locusts destroyed crops across East Africa, Mercy Corps’ AgriFin initiative worked with a network of partners to develop and deliver a new citizen reporting tool where farmers can easily report locusts in their areas and access up-to-date information. The service was built for multiple channels, including WhatsApp, Facebook and SMS, based on what farmers in the region told us they were using, driving immediate adoption by more than 16 million farmers. As a result of this close collaboration with farmers, 98% of those who register for AgriFin partner solutions actively use them.

2. Successfully scale the partnerships that work. Developing new tech is one thing; ensuring it reaches the right people and that they continue using it is another. This requires that governments, technology providers, financial institutions, agribusinesses, donors, and development agencies all collaborate. These partnerships can ensure that barriers to implementation are addressed.

3. Make digital agricultural platforms more gender inclusive. This requires considering how women farmers use technologies in product design and rollout. For example, timing of content delivered by SMS can be tailored to match times that women farmers who also have household responsibilities are most likely to be available (e.g., lunchtime, evenings and weekends).

The good news is that there are already examples of the type of local and global partnerships we need - from Chile, where the new National Artificial Intelligence Policy seeks to address socio-economic opportunities for AI; to Kenya, where the government is leading a Unified Agricultural Data Platform to support food availability, accessibility, and affordability. 

These case studies and others are profiled in the Future Marketplace Playbook that Mercy Corps, Consumers International, the World Economic Forum and others have developed in advance of the Food Systems Summit. It will take more partnerships like these to ensure that our food systems are truly effective and sustainable for all people, everywhere.