• Monday, December 04, 2023
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Ongoing conversations: Of technology, innovation in agriculture


  Since the news of the mobile phone policy broke, I have had very interesting conversations with Nigerians about the what, why, and how of technology in agriculture. Earlier articles on this column such as “Nigeria’s inroads into space technology for agriculture”, “Mobile phones for upward mobility in agriculture”, and “Big Brother Agriculture” have focused on the importance of technology and the urgency of a technology transfer in the field. However, save for one article on the merits of the policy and the importance of focusing on infrastructural development, I have spoken less to the mode and process of a technology transfer, the role of the government in this process, and how to maximise engagement and benefits for smallholder farmers and other agri-businessmen.

While many of my colleagues have conceded the benefits of technology in agriculture, they have been more vehement, and for good reason, in their opposition to the government’s plan to supply/provide mobile phones. The general gist of the dissent is that the government should not be in the business of supplying or soliciting suppliers in the name of enabling farmers and other agri-businessmen to have information at their fingertips when there are infrastructural challenges to be addressed. At the heart of the present debate is, I believe, the contention between technology transfer and technology incubation. Is the mass provision of technological inputs (machinery, phones, software, etc) the only or most efficient way to spur growth? Is there a more bottom-up approach that can be owned and appropriated by farmers, farming communities, and other stakeholders in the value chain? Where do small-scale farmers, young entrepreneurs in the service sector, and unemployed youths come in? Where does the government come in?

I found some answers to these questions in a policy brief which was presented by Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP) at the Future Agricultures Consortium last year. In this brief, a very interesting concept known as the Agricultural Innovation System (AIS) was proposed. A hybrid between science and research on the one hand and business and industry on the other, the AIS is purported to “represent a shift from technology delivery mode to capacity-strengthening – specifically the capacity to innovate”. Essentially, instead of importing phones and transplanting systems/techniques, the idea is that Nigeria/Nigerians should be looking towards creating a Silicon-Valley-type environment, an advanced Computer Village, if you will, for agriculture. This kind of environment will encourage home-grown competition, brainstorming and innovation in agricultural technology amongst Nigerians themselves. This not only creates jobs and a local market for many – especially those who are good with computers and gadgets – but also ensures that technology is better suited to the local conditions. I find this idea very interesting especially because of the implications for the value chain. Just like the little MTN, Glo, EcoNet call centres/kiosks that proliferated across the country at the turn of the 21st century, small-scale street-corner mobile testing systems, soil diagnostic outlets, machinery rentals, storage units, meteorological information service providers, market-based information systems and resource centres can spring up around farming communities, entrepôt cities and food markets. In my musings, I have also considered a situation whereby higher institutions work together and agricultural science and agricultural economics students team up with engineering and IT students to develop technology systems for farmers which can be

subsidised by the government and sold to the farmers or higher value-chain entrepreneurs at a moderate rate. Perhaps this can be presented as business and innovation competition between schools and faculties, or perhaps one particular institution can take up the challenge to introduce this programme in their school (like the annual MIT $100k competition at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States).

An interesting point raised against technology transfer as opposed to incubation is the exclusion of smallholder farmers – the very people the project actively seeks to reach – simply because it is impossible to reach everyone with a supply of input or handouts. The argument is that by transferring ready-made technology (such as mobile phones) to individual farmers, certain people (prominent/less remote farmers and farmer groups, the relatives of the local government chairman, more upwardly-mobile entrepreneurs) are more likely to benefit from this whereas more modest and less-connected farmer cooperatives or learning cells, forgotten women’s groups or credit unions, people living with disabilities, farmers still struggling to rebuild their lives after last year’s floods, young unemployed graduates with no capital and no connections are more likely to miss out on this entirely.

The idea of meeting potentially marginalised smallholder farmers and groups in their local niches is one that deeply resonates with me because I have seen remote extension work in practice. Last year, I taught marketing, business management and bookkeeping to several women vocational groups at the UNHCR Liberian refugee camp in Buduburam, Ghana. Most of these Liberian women at the camp were just about to graduate with diplomas in hairdressing, cooking, or sewing and needed to take their knowledge and expertise to the next level by getting a proper but customised education in market economics. Others had already set up their own businesses – with varying degrees of success – and had a growing wealth of experience to draw from. In administering this crash course, I employed a participatory approach wherein the

questions to be addressed were first posed to the women to discuss and their answers were affirmed and incorporated into my own discussion. My team also used surveys/personal assessment questionnaires, success stories of entrepreneurs across the continent, and skits to complement our instruction. The language was simple and clear and the message was realistic in that we were trying to enable these women work with the resources they had, start small, work in groups and pool resources if possible, and then gradually scale up after years of successful management.

Perhaps the biggest selling point of the AIS approach is the marketing angle it takes. Rather than continue the conventional path to marketing and adding value to farmers’ produce, it proposes farmer innovation by adapting farming behaviour to the market in order to “create an entrepreneurial culture where farmers produce what they can market, rather than trying to market what they produce”. This approach which is the known as the ERI – Enabling Rural Innovation – was developed in partnership with agricultural stakeholders in Congo DRC, Zambia, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, Zimbabwe, and Rwanda by the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture and has been implemented in these countries. It is in these local innovation environments – farmers’ field classrooms, workshops, local group enterprises – that information is disseminated and new technologies are provided to the farmers for use or hire. But one weakness in this approach is that the dissonance between what farmers can produce and what farmers can market undermines the farmers’ comparative advantage in production in favour of what might be a more superficial advantage in marketing. This is something that can be worked around. A combination of improved production techniques and marketing services or education might serve farmers better. At the end of the day, all farmers do not have to be marketers and this is why the agricultural value chain is important.