"What Indigo has learned"… Agriculture

This is the first in a mini-series of posts that will examine some of the lessons we have learnt from our funding of specific areas within our broader mission of using ICT to spur social innovation and change in Africa. The area in question today is agriculture.

Since Indigo’s first grant to an agricultural organisation, iCow, in 2011 we have expanded our agricultural funding in a number of different and exciting directions.

Here are the headlines!

iCow £43,536 Mobile phone app for smallholder dairy farmers
AgroHub £5,700 Networking platform for famers and buyers in Cameroon
AMIS Cameroon £4,950 SMS information service for farmers in Cameroon
Question Box £10,000 Telephonic question box for real-time answers to agricultural queries
ActionAid £10,000 Mapping project to prevent land-grabbing in Tanzania
Farmerline £5,200 Ghanaian voice and SMS agricultural information service.

These funding choices, along with the applications we receive more generally, highlight some specific problems in agriculture throughout many parts of Africa.

Information

The famous lexicographer Samuel Johnson once said “Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information upon it.”

In Africa many farmers have intimate knowledge of their land and farming techniques, but lack the kinds of knowledge that can only be found externally. Information like the market price of their crop, new medical opportunities like low cost vaccines or medicines, the availability of artificial insemination locally, or even just the upcoming weather can often be impossible to find when faced with poor infrastructure and huge distances.

Just as Johnson’s dictionary brought literacy to an increased audience, mobile technology is giving thousands of farmers the opportunity to find the information they need on their own terms.

Su Kahumbu with farmers at Kamirithu.The effects of having this information can be astounding. iCow, one of our biggest successes, has found that use of their cow gestation calendar and subscription to their animal husbandry updates can increase milk yields by as much as three additional litres per cow. For many smallholders this is akin to having an extra cow in a herd of two or three cows, but without the costs of purchase, rearing, and with minimal amounts of extra capital outlay in terms of food or veterinarian services.

Collective action and networks

agro-hubAnother key theme of our agriculture funding has been our experience that projects which foster networks or allow farmers to work together to mutually beneficial outcomes offer much added value. Again, it is the ability of technology to reduce vast geographical distances down to seconds which appears to be one of the key ingredients to success. Agro Hub seeks to connect farmers to buyers; this is simply the linking-up of a production chain. A fully linked and integrated production chain is a central economic imperative that can be easily overlooked in our densely interconnected world but it is often an obstacle to African farmers. With relationships established farmer and buyer both enjoy increased confidence in their future revenue allowing difficult investment decisions to be made on more solid ground.

Networks can act in other ways however, as Action Aid’s mapping of land-grabbing inActionAid Logo - with strapline Tanzania demonstrates. In coming together to collect the data necessary to describe the extent of the land-grabbing, farmers also help form a network that is then ready to campaign effectively and with a collective voice about this breach of human rights in which hundreds of farmers can become disenfranchised from their own land.

What next?

This field is full of exciting opportunities for us here at Indigo and we are looking forward to finding out what’s in store. We are aware of some projects that look to offer farmers cheap insurance via mobile phones. This kind of safety net could be life-changing for many farmers, but it comes with many risks too – the cost and administration of the organisation would need close scrutiny before any decisions might be made.

There is also huge potential to stitch together advances in the world of Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) provision with agriculture. Water supplies are under huge pressure in Africa and any way technology could be used to supply water in a highly efficient manner that maximised the water resources in question could be very exciting.

Research published in the journal “Agricultural Economics”(1) demonstrated that the application of ICT to agriculture has a positive relationship to productivity. In the 81 countries examined however it was clear that the increases in productivity were twice as high, on average, for developed countries. We want to help close this gap; food crises look set to become a familiar part of life in the future and any gains that can be made for Africa are surely worthwhile. We are also confident that Indigo’s funding philosophy, with its emphasis on home-grown technological solutions and not European or American imported solutions, will result in the most sustainable and long-term change. Below is the presentation we made to accompany this blog post:

We hope you’ve enjoyed this first article that looks at some of our funding in greater depth. We’d love to hear your thoughts, comments, observations and experiences – please post them below!

(1) Lio, M. and Lui, M-C. (2006) ‘ICT and agricultural productivity – evidence from cross-country data’ Agricultural Economics, 34 (3): 221-228