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TAG: Writing sample; long-form journalism

African agriculture goes digital.

A piece from 2014.

Across much of the developing world, some of the newest - and oldest - digital technologies are being implemented to help improve, and in some cases altogether reinvent, the ancient art of agriculture and ranching - the beating heart of so many community’s past, present and future. However, despite the buzz and well-founded theoretical promise of these innovative applications, realities suggest that in many places significant obstacles must be overcome before theory bears fruit.

Cameroonian soil has supported its people in much the same way for centuries. But today, like many of its peers in the majority world, the way in which food is grown and eaten is changing dramatically as urbanization, globalization, marketization, and mechanization reshape rural areas of this poor West African nation. How well, or poorly, this new, complex landscape can be navigated in Cameroon and place like it will have far reaching implications for the more than one billion small scale farmers around the world.

Every few kilometers of rural highway in Cameroon one can expect to find - opportunistically located next to a speed bump - a stand operated by several families eager to sell any variety of crop growing in that area. These small scale farmers have planted and harvested plantains, plums, yams, or whatever else their parents or grandparents taught them how to cultivate, in much the same way for generations.

In a juxtaposition, located right across the road or next to many of these small plots of land lie new, modern and massive corporate farms, characterized by expansive fields of meticulously straight rows and monocropping. These plots, the result of aforementioned global forces, have profound effects on the populations who have called the countryside their home and the land their lifeline long before the first tractor ever rolled by.

Like many of its majority world peers, agriculture is Cameroon’s biggest export industry, and its second biggest employer behind the government. In sub-Saharan Africa, nearly two-thirds of employment, one-third of GDP, and one in five formal businesses are in the agricultural sector. The continent has more potential farmland than Latin America or Asia, and diverse climates across the landmass support cash crops like cocoa, tea, legumes, sweet potatoes, cassava, exotic fruit, fish and livestock. The natural bounty is evident, but the continent is simultaneously mired in poverty and in many places, counterintuitively, hunger. A striking lack of market competency in many countries and complex international trade relationships explain much of the mismatch. 

Some large opportunistic corporations - encouraged by a growing, increasingly hungry and increasingly urban global population - have seen the potential and are profiting, both for themselves and in some instances for the country they are operating in. A few of these big operations are African, but careful consideration should be made when weighing what this means for in-country trickle down value chains. Countries with strong institutions that are careful not to fall into the typical trap of extractive industries can profit from such operations, but money flows of the many foreign-owned corporations active in the area are difficult to measure. Careful analysis of export taxes in host countries, domestic spending on programs encouraging healthy economic inclusively and localized food value chains is necessary to paint a picture of what is really happening. 

These corporations have the expertise, the capital and the supply-chains to make large sums of money in domestic and international markets; all assets small scale farmers, which, importantly, are the vast majority of the agricultural workforce in Cameroon and the rest of the world, don’t have access to or know exist. However, somewhat surprisingly, many of these small-scale farmers who are theoretically in direct competition with their corporate neighbors don’t express any ill will or tension. Indeed, corporate farms do employ a significant number of local people, albeit at extremely low wages. (Perhaps a more plausible explanation for the apathy is ignorance of their position in the larger picture.) 

When considering agriculture in developing countries, however, large-scale, well-funded farming operations play a vital role in transforming countries from a state of dependence on other regions for food to net-exporters of food, increasing the tax base for countries and feeding hungry people. Some profits stay in-country and are funneled down to local farm hands, truck drivers, vendors and commodity traders that constitute value chains in large farming operations. But, in an all too familiar twist with a long history, much of the profit in these operations leaves the country or stays in the hands of an elite few. 

Given that so many of its people make their living off the land, it is clear that modernizing agriculture is synonymous with modernizing the African economy.

Enter digital technologies. In many ways, information and communication technologies (ICTs) are a perfect solution for problems faced by small scale farmers in developing countries. There is a damaging lack of information dissemination when it comes to commodity prices, best practices, supply chains and advice about weather or harvest cycles (Equatorial regions suffer from volatile rainy and dry seasons, and climate change has made traditional expertise and internalized routines passed down for generations all but obsolete). Leveraging trends in commodity markets is impossible.  There is also currently no efficient way for small scale farmers to link up directly with consumers or consolidate and compete with larger operations.

ICTs, with their power to inform, advise, connect and empower, have the potential to change the fate of the more than one billion smallholder farmers around the world.

Modernizing agriculture in the developing world doesn’t have to follow the pattern it followed in the West, where over the course of a century small scale farmers lost out as farms grew larger and larger. Now, just two percent of the US population farms or ranches, compared to 43 percent in 1950. If a region like sub-Saharan Africa followed a similar trajectory, it would likely mean an increase in already high urbanization rates and skyrocketing unemployment in an already underperforming job market. If those billions of people suddenly lost their livelihoods, what else would they do?  

From India to Peru to Cameroon, efforts from a variety of actors are underway to connect disenfranchised farmers with ICTs. Mobile phones and the Internet, for example, are connecting rural populations with information on best practices and weather advice, helping conduct business transactions and monitoring crop health.

Rikin Gandhi’s organization Digital Green is working with farmers in India and Sub-Saharan Africa to create video tutorials teaching rural farmers successful, localized techniques.

“Our model combines technology and social organization to maximize the potential of building the capacity of community members on improved, sustainable agriculture, livelihood and health interventions,” explains Digital Green, according to their website. “We also facilitate knowledge exchange between community engagement for partners looking to learn, contribute and connect on social innovation practices toward improving lives in rural communities.”

But optimism must be tempered by realistic analysis of challenges.

While there is loud and convincing buzz surrounding the proliferation of smartphones across the globe, for the large majority of rural poor in the world, owning a smartphone is still unrealistic. Gandhi, by disseminating the videos via TV or computer screens and in 10-15 person group settings with a credible facilitator, accounts for the lack of some technologies and altogether bypasses the prohibitive digital access divide. In Nigeria, Nnaemeka Ikegwuonu is broadcasting information on what to produce, how to produce, when to produce, and for whom to produce - on the radio. He finds that the seemingly ancient technology allows for the largest outreach.

Not diminishing the utility - albeit limited utility - of radio, basic cell phones are now cheap and prevalent. Recognizing that it might be years until smart phones and internet infrastructure (see piece on infrastructure) become realistic for bottom of the pyramid (BOP) consumers, the Indian startup U2opia Mobile’s Fonetwish technology targets poor, rural farmers and connects them to the internet using basic cell phones through USSD-protocol. Fonetwish works with all major telecoms in India, and the growing startup is in talks to expand the service in Africa.

Until cheaper smartphones and widespread, reliable service become feasible for a critical mass of BOP poor, efforts to connect, inform, engage and empower farmers must adapt.

“No food value chain project or program can really work effectively without proper communication flow,” says Valery Colong, co-founder of Buea, Cameroon’s startup incubator ActivSpaces and CEO of Agro-Hub. What Colong wants to do with his Agro-Hub venture is, “use information technology to try and connect with farmers in the field so that we can better coordinate the activities in terms of sourcing food from smallholder farmers.” Currently, he is mostly utilizing basic cell phone messaging to meet the on-the-ground realities.

Agro-Hub is designed to create direct producer-consumer relationships using commercial outlets for small scale farmers who have otherwise limited market options. Its an example of how connective technologies can achieve market relevance through numbers, enabling a coalition of small farms the opportunity to compete and gain access to markets in a world dealing with the hunger pains that come with exponential population growth and urbanization.

“In terms of reaching farmers with information, its really been quite successful, even though we have not really made widespread impact," says Colong, admitting the challenges associated with his mission. "In terms of actually making it possible for trade, exchange of good and services between the consumer and the farmer was difficult, because of logistics concerns.”

The difficulties Colong points too are not limited to Cameroon. But, he says in places like East Africa, where mobile connectivity is even higher and outreach has been more successful, digital technologies appear to be improving the lives of farmers. In Kenya, a country that in a 2011 publication the World Bank called a hotbed of technological innovation in the agriculture industry, small scale farmers are now using a cloud-based mobile platform that keeps track of pesticide residues in produce.

As another example of success, Ugandan farmers are buying seeds and fertilizer, as well as receiving payments for produce, using their mobile phones. UNACOFF is yet another Ugandan initiative that has established a novel business model for small scale farmers, encouraging best practices in harvesting cash crops and advising on fertilizer, crop rotation and irrigation. The group links the smallholders up with guaranteed buyers on the international market.

Still, too little is understood about the impacts of these initiatives. 

Moreover, the challenges ICTs are poised to fix are far from the only ones working against prosperity prospects for sub-Saharan African farmers. There remains a troubling financing gap for small and medium scale farmers. (the hills around Bamenda, Cameroon, would make for perfect cattle grazing - if locals had access to the capital needed to buy expensive cows and information about how to take care of them. Like Brazil 20 years ago, huge swaths of land in Africa are poised to profit from ranching. As East Asian countries get wealthier, the world demand for meat continues to rise. Of course, using the deforestation that is occurring as a result of the Brazilian ranching boom as a warning, industry growth should be consider environmental concerns.) Poor transportation infrastructure is inhibiting access to markets. There is a lack of research into local flora and fauna. Fertilizer and genetically modified crops and animals, while controversial, are still too expensive for the average poor farmer. Challenges related to the small plot sizes rural farmers work are potentially difficult to overcome. Only four percent of arable land in Africa is irrigated, compared to 58 percent in India and 55 percent in China. Even the lack of trained tractor drivers is an issue.

As some governments continue to ensure land ownership rights - another major issue - digital mapping and GPS applications will become increasingly important to even the smallest farmer. Insurance for farmers, just now starting to take hold in Africa, is aided by the spread of ICTs.

One can envision countless ways in which ICT proliferation could address, or at least begin to alleviate, some of the above challenges.

For Agronomist Dr. Tatah Eugene of the Catholic University of Bamenda, part of the solution will be looking outside the box. He points to elephant grass, a common weed growing in Cameroon and much of Africa, that can be turned into biogas and either used or sold for profit.

“It is my wish to increase the income for the poor farmers in Cameroon. We think the only way we can do this is go beyond food and look into other things that a farmer can also do for a secondary income.”

Even in this scenario, the essential role information and communication technologies could play is evident.

Obstacles notwithstanding, ICT’s potential for true disruption in the agriculture industry is alluring - perhaps vital for the hundreds of millions struggling to hold on to their livelihood, or even just stay alive.

Colong believes action is outreach.

“We should shut the f*** up and get to ground and see what's up. So that's what I want to see. We really need to put in more effort into training farmers and people at the bottom of the pyramid in the use of this technology.”

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