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Notes on digital agriculture

A Kano onion farmer inside his nursery.

In the last four years, I have been part of numerous agricultural information technology projects across Nigeria aimed at using digital technologies to support farmers.

While I have mixed feelings about some of the outcomes and experiences, I have witnessed some outstanding results. I have worked on some of these projects on a completely private level, while some of them were done alongside international development organisations or governments. Remarkably, the most successful projects were donor-funded even though they lacked a thorough sustainability angle without the donors. I have examined some of our work funded by the European Union, The German Cooperation and OXFAM as leading examples of how crucial digital technologies can be for farmers in Nigeria.

Generally, these projects I have worked on required building mobile information, communication and marketing platform for farmers using cross-media platforms such as the mobile phone, web and radio to facilitate information for the farmers, enhance communication and provide business linkage as well as visibility to ready markets.

A major problem stems from the fact that agricultural markets, including banks, operate on a seemingly different plane from smallholder farmers who exist on a predominantly informal plane. So, there is no effective communication between farmers and markets. Smallholder farmers don’t know what the market will pay and as such cannot grow crops according to the market’s specifications. Most of these farmers are still using traditional methods of farming and are bereft of scientific information ranging from weather data to agricultural best practices that would let them double or even triple their yields. This is the primary cause of their under-production, loss and food crises as well as some environmental crises in some regions. As such, they grow mostly what they can eat or trade locally, the way they have always grown it.

The need for a solution to these challenges is clearly expressed in NEPAD’s observation that agricultural growth in Nigeria is generally achieved by cultivating more land and by mobilising a larger agricultural labour force. There has been very little improvement in yields and barely any change in production techniques and access to the market.

As far as the market is concerned, the physical disconnect is a direct result of the existence of an information disconnect. The basic infrastructure like rails and roads that would take crops from the smallholder’s farm to the market do not exist, because the market doesn’t want the crops the farmers are growing in the ways and volumes they are growing them. This leads to the isolation of the smallholder farmer, usually with no money and no voice that the marketplace can hear. The market-driven infrastructural development (ranging from rail to port) around groundnut, cotton, and cocoa in the late 1800s and early 1900s was not sporadic or aimless. It was a deliberate system that linked farms and farmers to regional and global markets. Until we figure out the market linkage debacle for agricultural commodities, no scale of infrastructural investment may ever save us.

However, in a data-intensive world and with the proliferation of mobile phones, digital technologies can be used to effectively bridge the gaps and link the farmers to not only markets but also knowledge bases. Smallholder farmers in Nigeria are already using mobile phones to communicate with loved ones and to talk to family and friends. It is fascinating to note that the institutions that make up the formal marketplace communicate in much the same way. Therefore, it is not farfetched to think of generating a simple two-way means of digital communication to reach and at the same time hear from smallholder farmers. I have witnessed this work in Plateau where potato farmers used digital technologies to access markets and extension. I have also worked with women farmers in Benue State recording tremendous improvements in their farming. Lately, I am seeing the same results with farmers in Adamawa and Kebbi States piloting these technologies.

Where these types of platforms exist, they can easily accommodate the various cooperatives, local business groups or civil society groups by providing them with a mobile and web platform to reach, manage and administer content to the farmers in their networks as well as obtain structured feedback from farmers and their small businesses. Easily deployed could also be a reporting mechanism through which agencies and organisations can interact with various sets of data to understand trends and plan interventions.

A great example is a nifty tool we deployed in Plateau State some years back that functioned as a conflict awareness and alert system. Through this, the farmers and other users of the platform can report any business conflicts, security issues and corruption. States or any interested party can use the platform to identify hotspots and plan resolution or any further action. Information can thus be crowd-sourced to address the difficulty of obtaining structured feedback from medium and small enterprises on their enabling environments.

The bottom line is democratisation of data and easy flow of information cuts down the cost of doing business in agriculture to such a great extent. It saves an incredible amount of money and time for not only the farmers but also agribusinesses that spend outrageously in managing the risk of doing business. In a situation where stakeholders and partners can know each other easily and exist as entities in a single platform, agriculture will be boosted to unimaginable levels.