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3 Uncommon Ways ICT Can Aid Delivery of High Impact Agricultural Research and Development

By Guest Writer on September 7, 2017

Delivery of scalable agricultural intervention and development can be enhanced using contemporary ICT tools. Such ICT-driven revolution is imperative to meet the nutrition needs of growing global population, which is projected to reach 9 Billion by year 2050.

For instance, the first three sustainable development goals (SDGs) have strong implication for smallholder farmers who mostly live on the edge in rural communities. Smallholder farmers in Africa are predominantly among the world’s poorest, often malnourished, and lack access to necessities such as clean water, energy, or education.

The adoption of ICT tools for planning and implementing Agricultural interventions within the continent is gradually evolving and will likely change extant practices and outcomes. As a matter of fact, this is gradually becoming new reality to support and advance agricultural production systems.

This emerging reality is being driven by the availability of eclectic ICT toolboxes including cellphones, sensors, GPS (and GIS), computers, apps etc. For obvious reasons, application of these tools varies and depends on pertinent issues being tackled within target agricultural production systems.

Invariably, there is an unprecedented opportunity to address core needs for agricultural research and development by addressing questions, which until recently, have been quite difficult to resolve. These include:

1. Where can we make the most impact?

Determining the appropriate locations and scale for implementing agricultural development interventions is the foundation for achieving desired impact and returns on investment. This must be done with an understanding of underlying variation (in space and time) of critical success factors for the target goals.

An objective and spatially-explicit assessment of such factors is achievable with the use of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) platforms which allows users to query, analyze, and output information at target scale. For instance, to determine the potential areas that would be suitable for crop intensification, it will be important to incorporate available datasets on cropland coverage, population density as proxy for labor availability, and travel distance to nearest market as a proxy for market access etc.

Synthesizing information in this way really allows research and development efforts to become more objective regarding piloting and out-scaling of relevant tools.

2. How can we crowdsource actionable data?

Engaging and supporting stakeholders within priority agricultural value chains require in-depth understanding of their network, profiles, and preferences. These stakeholder networks are critical links for crowdsourcing actionable data and engaging with wider network of farmers and actors within agricultural development sphere.

For example, Agro-input dealers are important nodes for strategic (near) real-time data collection on prices of agro-inputs, trends in demand and supply, and track uptake of improved technologies by farmers.

By deploying tools such as smart-phone based open data kit (ODK) and adopting a “Training of Trainer ToT” approach to crowdsource enumerators and agro-dealers, timely robust data can be generated and integrated into apps or tools that are responsive to changing needs, preferences, and production outlooks.

3. What are the contextual needs to be addressed for sustainable development?

Quite often, innovations for agricultural development have been approached as a Build-and-Dump (BaD) venture, where users have little to no input in the conception, prototyping, or deployment of tools.

However, this model does not offer the needed recipe for matching innovation with contextual needs and typically stifles adoption beyond project life-span. The availability of ICT tools for collaboration and exchange of ideas on tool development have a great potential to improve acceptability and adoption within the ecosystem of stakeholders and users. In contrast to the past approach, e-communication platforms now allow for real-time cohesive co-development.

This model follows the sequence of Build, Engage, and Deliver (BED) for sustainable and broader impact of innovation. As a key (and often missing) link, the engagement process be more effective and efficient by leveraging on interactive advantage of whatsapp, collaborative advantage of document sharing platforms (e.g. dropbox and googledrive), and the integrative advantage of blogs or webpages.

Ultimately, this ICT-driven pathway allows researchers and innovators to build tools that matches contextual needs, engage stakeholder to gain needed buy-in, and deliver value for the money.

On a final note

Imagine a world where farmers are adequately empowered with knowledge on right seed varieties for the right locations, or a world where we know areas that are deficient in critical soil nutrient within smallholder farmers field, with such knowledge translated into real-time diagnostic and advisory service to optimize yield.

Or better still, a world where farmers do not have to wait till the end of the season to know the realizable yield from their farms, and then use such information to gain negotiation advantage in the commodity market.

All these are achievable as institutions and donors become intentional in the use of available ICT tools to guide decisions regarding interventions and investments in agricultural production systems.

By Julius B. Adewopo Ph.D, Research Fellow/Geospatial Analyst, International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA). These insights were shared during the annual ICTforAg 2017 Conference in Washington, D.C., and they are mostly based on experiences garnered from a project focused on Taking Maize Agronomy to Scale in Africa – TAMASA. The project is being implemented by CIMMYT* and IITA** to innovatively improve maize yield and address yield gap in sub-Saharan Africa, with funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

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