The private sector is well placed to contribute to the agricultural sector through its creativity and passion in partnership with other players in the sector.
ICTs offer opportunities to introduce new services and increase the reach of these and existing services to a larger population, in particular in the agricultural value chain. The private sector, driven by entrepreneurs, is well placed to convert these opportunities. In particular, it can contribute in three areas: sustainability, creativity and passion.
Entrepreneurs thrive on success. Failure rarely pays. Success rests on sustainability, and sustainability results in value-added services with longevity. The value and hence sustainability of a service ultimately depends on the end user. If the product is deemed to have no value, users simply will not pay for it. In the private sector, goods and services are usually exchanged through the transfer of money. Essentially, this is no different in ICT4Ag. A farmer, like any customer, is more likely to part with cash if there is a worthwhile return. The name of the game is demand and supply of value, in ICT4Ag as elsewhere.
The private sector brings entrepreneurial creativity and out-of-the-box thinking to ICT4Ag value-added services. Entrepreneurs seek to solve problems in unique and innovative ways. This approach, used in ICT4Ag, is creating new ways of finding scalable solutions for old problems. It is in the nature of entrepreneurs to see beyond what is immediately visible and join the dots across multidisciplinary sectors, combining technology and agriculture, to cite one example. The entrepreneurial way of thinking is different than institutional or public sector thinking, and has the potential to be a real game changer in the agricultural sector.
Entrepreneurs are often fuelled by passion and persistence. This volatile mix is a great driver of innovation, and entrepreneurs generally have a long-term holistic approach to problems that they are passionate about fixing. Being answerable to bankruptcy makes entrepreneurs highly focused and deliberate in their efforts.
For entrepreneurs with a passion for agriculture, ICT4Ag is a stimulating and satisfying new and organic evolution of the agricultural sector. We have entered an era in which a variety of technologies have become available to educate and support farmers, enabling them to increase productivity and income. For an agricultural information service such as iCow, which predominantly relies on ICT4Ag over mobile phones, this has been an interesting space because partners from both agriculture and technology need a period of time to acclimatise before either can understand cross-over innovations like iCow.
The iCow application uses SMS, video and web as direct channels, but the iCow model incorporates partners who use other channels for ICT4Ag, including radio and TV. The iCow platform provides a one-stop shop for farmers that enables them to build their agricultural knowledge of specific topics through service subscriptions. This reservoir of knowledge also increases their agricultural acumen and provides them with 24/7 access to experts and expertise. And the iCow platform sends farmers pertinent reminders about their livestock needs.
When N’Kalô, an initiative by RONGEAD to improve the marketing of agricultural products in West and Central Africa, begun developing its information and advisory service, it had to think hard about the kind of information it was able to provide and whether people were interested enough in it to buy it. Providing agricultural prices, for example, would not be difficult, but few people are willing to pay money for agricultural prices. So N’Kalô decided to develop a new kind of market information: market intelligence.
Once N’Kalô decided what to bring to agricultural stakeholders, it began to think about what the most suitable and affordable technology would be to convey the information. You have to keep in mind that farmers, even if they know how to use mobile phones, are not used to codes and apps. So that means adapting the technology and cost to your target audience.
N’Kalô partnered Orange Côte d’Ivoire to develop an easy way of proving farmers with agricultural information. They only needed to send the name of their region to subscribe to the service. N’Kalô, aware of which crops are grown in a given region, then sent them information about those crops only. After one month, subscribers receive a message with a proposal for automatic renewal.
The main challenge now is to increase the network of partners to generate more information about agriculture in Côte d’Ivoire. Another challenge is mobile sector regulation. N’Kalô is currently not allowed to advertise, even though more and more services and input providers who want to take advantage of its network of 23,000 subscribers. The focus now is to improve the subscriber network.
The best way to have a lasting impact in the agricultural sector is by understanding the problems facing farmers and designing simple but effective solutions to these problems. That is where the private sector can help. It knows how to make these solutions cost effective. It knows how to make them work in real time for an affordable price for the end user as well. And perhaps most crucially, these solutions have to be driven by consumer demand. ◀
Julien Gonnet (firstname.lastname@example.org) is ICT expert at RONGEAD in Lyon, France.
Su Kahumbu Stephanou (email@example.com) is CEO of Green Dreams in Nairobi, Kenya.