Originally written on Sunday, 1 December 2013
Ben Addom, coordinator of the ‘Emerging innovations’ stream, talks about the effort to create a ‘living database’ of ICT4Ag solutions.
In your article in the last issue of ICT Update you mentioned that we need to coordinate efforts to monitor the impact of applications since there are so many of them. Have there been any positive signs during your stream sessions that this may be accomplished?
Yes, this was already obvious early on during the Plug & Play Day and all the way through to the end of the conference, when presenters, speakers and participants identified one of the main bottlenecks in the use of ICTs in agriculture. Applications, solutions and innovations are being duplicated and there is very little collaboration among developers. As stream coordinators, we are working hard to collate all the key messages from the sessions, analyse them and recommend a step forward. But it looks like one specific action that is likely to be taken as a first step will be to work with the stakeholders to identify and document ICT4Ag solutions so we can create a ‘living’ database. It will serve as an open platform that everyone can update as new innovations emerge. This effort will probably revive and upgrade some of the work done by USAID’s Global Broadband and Innovations programme that I was involved in between 2011 and 2012, which unfortunately, was not sustained.
Including stakeholders in the value chain is another key concern. Have the sessions come up with anything that would accelerate this process?
You bet! CTA’s approach to using ICTs in the agricultural value chain targets stakeholders and promotes ICT solutions that specifically address the needs of these stakeholders. The conference organisers did not wait until the conference was over to accelerate this process. In fact, the issue of inclusion was already considered while designing the conference sessions. So we did everything possible to include all the stakeholders in the various components of the conference. Farmers and farmer organisations were invited to the conference and given support to attend. And they were encouraged to share their stories in some of the sessions.
The conference also provided youth with a platform. Many of the participants were young women and men who contributed through social reporting and hackathons. Gender was also part of the conference design. The closing keynote speaker was a young woman from Cameroon: Rebecca Enonchong, founder and chief executive officer of AppsTech, a leading global provider of enterprise application solutions. In addition, researchers presented their work on ICTs and agriculture, policy makers participated in sessions solely designed for them and investors were given the opportunity to listen and constructively criticise thriving solutions.
These steps were taken to highlight all the different facets of the conference theme, ‘ICT4Ag: the digital springboard for inclusive agriculture’. The opportunities that this single conference platform provided to all the stakeholders are expected to further encourage and spur on those who feel or have been ‘ignored’ or ‘left out’ to make their voices heard.
One of the session leaders asked us to write onto a card what really ‘wowed’ us at the conference. Did anything wow you?
Again, the output from the streams will actually answer this question better than I can. But I can verify that a number of the ICT solutions were able to make their mark at the conference. First there was mFisheries, a suite of applications developed at the University of the West Indies. Using a smart phone, fisherfolks can access weather reports, navigational tools, training tips on first aid, and information on emergency boat repairs. They can also find out while at sea what the fish prices are in different markets. Second, there was a well-received agricultural input e-verification system. The system allows farmers to use SMS to verify the authenticity of agro-inputs before using them. Users submit SMS queries to a local short code, which delivers a reassuring authentication message within a few seconds. Third, there was a simple but powerful market information system from Madagascar with great potential that can be accessed via smartphone, tablet or computer. Rural eMarket is multilingual, context specific, easy to use, quick to adopt, and most of all, affordable for most rural projects.
In your article you mentioned that you were hoping to get app developers to fill some of the existing gaps – for example why do apps focus on market info, but less on post-harvest management? Was there any progress at the conference in that respect?
The goal was to highlight the gaps in ICT4Ag solutions – areas of concentration versus areas of scarcity. This came up a number of times during the session discussions. For example, during the Plug & Play Day, which showcased over 36 solutions, it was clear that most of the applications focused on information related to market access. Areas such as farm management and postharvest management, to name two, were absent. It was interesting, however, that there were foundations and development partners at the conference who were looking for ICT solutions for some of these ‘forgotten’ components of the value chain. CTA has started a discussion with some of these partners to explore practical actions to address the issue.
In addition, the model being used by CTA for the hackathons is also expected to address this missing gap. The approach of a hackathon is to deliver real-time solutions to problems, but unfortunately many of the ideas cultivated at hackathons peter out afterwards or have difficulty finding investors. CTA designed this hackathon in such a way that stakeholders and developers can work together in an environment more conducive to the development of these ideas.
The title of this issue of ICT Update is ‘Making it happen’. Are you confident that participants of this conference will take home what they’ve learned here and actually make things happen?
Opportunities were created right from day one for peer-to-peer collaboration, developer–investor partnerships, and partnerships between technology and agricultural stakeholders. The final plenary session was a concluding platform focused on opportunities. It broke up the participants into a number of groups who brainstormed about what to do after the conference. There was also a great deal of one-on-one networking all week, and that’s definitely a sign that action is likely to be taken after the conference.
In my opinion, nothing will happen if the conference participants wait for the organisers to make it happen. They have to take initiative as well. Having said that, as the lead organiser CTA has invested a great deal in this conference and has plans of continuing the dialogue to make things happen. And there are a number of follow-up activities in the pipeline for next year, which are designed to assess whether things have been ‘made to happen’.
Is there something you would like to add?
Developing business models for ICT4Ag solutions was high on the agenda at the conference. It was observed that the sustainability challenge of solutions in the ICT4Ag sector is the result of poorly conceived business models. Most of the solutions are still donor-funded after all these years, and it is therefore difficult to scale up these solutions from their current pilot status. I believe this is something that needs to be urgently addressed on a separate platform.There were a number of interesting discussions in the individual stream sessions, such as the issue of mobile finance for agricultural development, improving access to and the use of agricultural data through mobile technologies and other ICTs, and whether it is better to focus on individual applications or explore integrated systems that address most of the challenges along the value chain. Another issue that was discussed in detail was how to use social media tools for online media monitoring. These are crucial issues that will be fully analysed when the final outputs of the stream are ready.