Make your choice : mobile technology or food production techniques (Willem VAN COTTHEM)

I have read with great interest the article on “12 ways mobile technology can boost African agriculture” , see the posting on my desertification blog :

http://www.africanagricultureblog.com/2011/11/12-ways-mobile-technology-can-boost.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+africanagricultureblog%2FNaEx+%28African+Agriculture%29

In fact, I was not surprised at all that this article, published at the African Agriculture blog, is based upon a recent report of Vodafone – Accenture (“Connected Agriculture : The role of mobile in driving efficiency and sustainability in the food and agriculture value chain”).

Here is Vodafone’s introductory text :

“Vodafone Group Plc is one of the world’s largest mobile communications companies
by revenue. It has a significant presence in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Asia
Pacific and the US through the company’s subsidiaries, joint ventures, associated
undertakings and investments.

Vodafone plays an active role in seeking to address the challenges faced by
today’s emerging economies through the use of technology. Using the Millennium
Development Goals as a focal point, the company has worked in partnership with
other multinationals and organisations such as the GSMA, UN Foundation and the
UK Department for International Development to provide products and services that
help to tackle hunger, reduce child mortality and support women.

Vodafone’s mobile money transfer service, M-PESA, has proved extremely successful
at bringing basic financial services to the rural poor in Kenya and other countries,
together with a wide range of community benefits. Other examples include
programmes such as the GSMA mWomen initiative which aims to address barriers
preventing women from using mobile, and SMS for Life which is improving the
management of anti-malarial medication stocks in rural Tanzania.”

————–

Vodafone and Accenture identified the following “12 opportunities for mobile phone technology to increase agricultural income and productivity. Some of these platforms are already widely used in Africa, while others are still in the early stages of implementation.“:

  1. Mobile payment systems
  2. Micro-insurance systems
  3. Micro-lending platforms
  4. Mobile information platforms
  5. Farmer helplines
  6. Smart logistics
  7. Traceability and tracking systems
  8. Mobile management of supplier networks
  9. Mobile management of distribution networks
  10. Agricultural trading platforms
  11. Agricultural tendering platforms
  12. Agricultural bartering platforms

To make things a bit more clear :

  1. Smallholder farmers can get an inexpensive and secure way to transfer and save money using their mobile phones, mobile payment systems replacing costly traditional transfer services and the need to travel long distances to collect funds.
  2. Mobile micro-insurance systems can safeguard farmers against losses when bad weather harms their harvest, encouraging them to buy better quality seeds and invest in fertiliser and other inputs.
  3. Micro-lending platforms could connect smallholder farmers with individuals elsewhere willing to provide finance to help the farmers.
  4. Mobile information platforms let farmers receive text messages with information.
  5. Farmers can call a helpline to speak to agricultural experts.
  6. Smart logistics uses mobile technology to help distribution companies manage their fleets more efficiently.
  7. Smallholders can use mobile technology can be used to track individual food products.
  8. Food buyers and exporters can use mobile phones to manage their networks of small-scale growers.
  9. Distributors of farming inputs could use mobile technology to gather sales and stock data.
  10. Linking smallholder farmers directly with potential buyers.
  11. Online platforms for submitting and bidding on tenders.
  12. Exchanging goods, services and skills with community members.

——————-

Suppose many agree that these are all fantastic opportunities!  But, do we really mean opportunities for smallholder farmers in Africa ?

Aren’t these smallholders not the same people spoken about in UN-articles on child malnutrition, hunger and famine, not to mention poverty ?

Are poor smallholders supposed to buy mobile phones with batteries (rechargeable ones, if there is electricity in the neighbourhood) ?

Are they supposed to use their mobile phone for every single opportunity mentioned above ?

Or do they try today to feed their family with hard field labour ?

And try to save some money to take their women and children to the hospital when needed ?

For me, one thing is clear : instead of promoting the use of mobile technology by poor people, I would rather spend some money on wages of teams of extension officers, training the smallholder farmers in some simple, cheap, low-tech food growing methods. My point is : with an empty stomach you can’t use a mobile phone.  So, let us first teach them how to improve their methods and techniques for food production and then, at the end of the day, when stomachs are full, show them the opportunities of mobile technology.  The horse and the wagon, you know !

Before going into business “with phones, payment systems, insurance, micro-lending platforms, information platforms, helplines, logistics, tracking systems, management of supplier and distribution networks, trading and tendering platforms”, shouldn’t we help these smallholders to decent food for their families by offering them all the possible opportunities to produce food at the lowest, sustainable cost ?

Our main objective is to help the smallholder farmers to better standards of living, not by making them spend their bit of money on modern technologies, but by informing them about opportunities to improve their food production with simple, affordable methods and techniques.

We have the knowledge to do so.  Let us not wait any longer to share this knowledge with them without hoping to become richer ourselves.  Maybe some bigger companies can contribute to set up this information sharing and training chain ?

Published by

Willem Van Cotthem

Honorary Professor of Botany, University of Ghent (Belgium). Scientific Consultant for Desertification and Sustainable Development.