Technology for agriculture? Design with farmers at the center

In the midst of booming technological innovation across the globe, the hand hoe remains a primary tool for nearly 500 million smallholder farmers who grow nearly three quarters of the food consumed in Africa and Asia. Yet such farmers’ transition to new technologies is constrained by factors ranging from inappropriate design to underdeveloped infrastructure. Notably few agriculture innovations are created by – or even with – the farmers they are meant to serve.

How might we design technologies with and for smallholder farmers? I interviewed Dyborn Chibonga, Regional Head for Malawi and Mozambique for the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA). He offered a farmer-centered perspective on appropriate technologies for smallholders – from improved seeds to walking tractors to online commodity marketplaces – and underscored that farmers should be partners in the agriculture transformation process.

Lorin Fries: With the scale of our food security challenges, why should we focus on smallholder farmers?

Dyborn Chibonga: We need to feed the world with nutritious food. Up to 70 percent of the population in Africa is employed in the business of agriculture. We’re working to change mindsets around smallholder farmers. We may talk about billions of dollars going into the agriculture sector, but the smallholders are putting their labor, their effort, their very lives into that business. They are the biggest investors.

Fries: Where are you using technology toward your goals?

Chibonga: One area of focus is high-yielding seeds. AGRA’s work has supported the release of more than 600 varieties in Africa since 2006. We invested training and capacity building for 500 plant breeders from 20 African countries. As a result of their work, 100 seed companies have produced more than 100 metric tons of high-quality high-yielding varieties — enough for about 15 million farmers. These technology innovations have included the biofortification of food – such as for wheat, maize and sweet potato – that deliver improved nutrition to the people.

Low-bandwidth mobile applications are also key. Two years ago, amid heavy rains in Malawi, my former team needed to communicate to farmers to remove the mulch from their fields. By circulating a two-minute video clip, we helped many to save their crop. Sending that knowledge through extension workers could have taken three months, and by then it would have been too late. To put this in context, in the 1970’s, each extension worker in Malawi was trying to reach 600-800 farming families; now each worker covers 3,000 families. Through mobile technology, information and knowledge can reach farmers without the agents being physically present.

A final example is market access through online commodity trading platforms. These have helped farmers to organize and negotiate fairer prices. Such technology has enabled the aggregation of over 600,000 metric tons of commodity at a value of $177m, and assisted over 760,000 farmers to sell 680 MT of commodities at a value of $364m. The Farm to Market Alliance, which seeks to benefit 1.5m farmers by 2022, is a strong example of such a platform.

Fries: Where has technology had mixed or negative effects, in your experience?

Chibonga: When we talk about mechanization in Africa, people often think of “tractorization”. But for a smallholder farmer to come from a machete to a 500 horsepower tractor is a huge leap. Many farmers have fragmented pieces of land, such that a tractor isn’t appropriate. Sometimes a project will provide tractors, but after maintenance, spare parts and fuel, the people are poorer at the end of the project than they were at the beginning.

I’ll give you an example from Malawi. The government entered into a loan agreement with the Indian government, who provided 100 tractors to assist smallholder farming. But before we knew it, the tractors had been divided up between politicians and government employees, who now hire them to medium and large-scale producers who can afford them.

This is an example where both the technology and how it was introduced were misguided. Families in countries like Malawi often struggle with weeding because their tools are so basic. I have insisted that the United Nations review the hand hoe and call it a “weapon of mass urbanization” because in children’s mind it represents punishing work, and they do not return to the land after being educated. So mechanization should be developed to address problems like weeding. India is very good with walking tractors; those 3.5-10 horsepower machines would have been so much more valuable in Malawi.

Fries: Where do you wish you could be making progress faster?

Chibonga: Most African agriculture is rain-fed, and many countries have only one season per year. Only 6-10% of agriculture in Africa is irrigated. This poses a challenge especially in the context of climate change, which caused huge variations within and between seasons. We need to invest seriously in smallholder irrigation systems to increase to 3-4 harvests per year.

Another challenge is public investment. I’m glad that many African countries have a development agenda linked to the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Program (CAADP) and the Maputo and Malabo declarations, but many are not allocating the 10% minimum from their national budget to the agriculture sector. This standard was designed to help countries achieve 6% GDP growth and to positively affect poverty. Agriculture is the biggest employer in Africa, with four times more potential to create jobs and reduce poverty than any other industry. Governments must invest in agriculture to make it transformative.

Fries: Any additional reflections about the role of technology in pursuing the Sustainable Development Goals?

Chibonga: Smallholder agriculture will continue to be the backbone of many African economies. I believe the sector could be made smarter, incorporating technologies to deliver impact. We need to ensure that government, development partners and the private sector are helping farmers to do their job better, and to see smallholders as partners, not beneficiaries. That will help deliver the results we need.

This interview, originally published on Forbes, is part of a series on how technology and innovation are transforming food and ecological systems – and how to get it right for people and planet. The conversation has been edited for clarity and length. The views expressed are Dyborn’s own.Technology For Agriculture? Design With Farmers At The Center

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