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Smallholders need to be involved in the decision-making

Smallholders have the farming knowledge – they know the local context and the fields, they know what grows and what doesn’t grow

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Tim Unwin discusses what is needed in ICT for Development collaboration and initiatives to ensure technology and data can truly benefit smallholder farmers.

What do you think needs to change in terms of the project design of ICT for Development (ICT4D) initiatives so that they have a wider impact?

One of the fundamental problems with ICT4D initiatives is that they are often designed as pilots, not necessarily as sustainable and scalable projects. Unless an initiative is designed at scale, it is highly unlikely that it will ever be able to be implemented at scale. In essence, civil society organisations, start-ups and global corporations often come up with an idea and provide the resources to make sure the pilot works well, then try to persuade donors and governments to pay for scaling so they can roll it out. But invariably, the business model is wrong because it was never designed at scale in the first place. The solution is to design at scale from the very beginning.

If we want to use digital in delivering scale, you’ve got to begin by increasing technology access – if you haven’t got access, you don’t even reach stage one. Yes, you need literacy and of course, any content needs to be relevant, but I’m a great believer in universal access because if you haven’t got that, the playing field isn’t level. This can be achieved creatively through partnerships where the private sector and governments work creatively together to support the world’s poorest.

The private sector is a key implementing partner in ICT4D initiatives, yet, in your blog, you state that the private sector is driven by profitability and cannot have the interests of the poor at heart. Is this contradiction not problematic?

The private sector is essentially concerned with delivering profit to its owners and shareholders. If it doesn’t it goes bust! This a totally different mentality from spending on the poorest and most marginalised without an expectation of generating profit. There is a burgeoning, expanding middle class which the private sector wants to exploit for profit – so it’s interested in the ‘next billion’ not in what is often called the ‘lowest billion’ (but I call the ‘first billion’ because it is of most importance). If you deliver the solution to the poorest and the most marginalised through a business model that enables that, you would be undercutting everyone providing services and marketing to the next billion.

The private sector, the public sector and civil society need to work together collaboratively, but to do that well takes a lot of time and resources. Central to achieving strong partnerships is having a reciprocal agreement in advance – what are you going to give and what do you expect to receive in return.

How is the research of the UNESCO Chair in ICT4D helping to ensure relevant and usable data is generated for the world’s smallholder farmers?

Researchers of the Chair are working, for example on the algorithms for drones that could be used in agriculture and there is a lot of work being done on relevant and usable data around the Internet of Things (IoT). Having remote sensors at different levels of the agricultural framework and enabling farmers to access and use that data can be effective. For instance, imagine a pastoralist nomad in West Africa who is using historical routes on which to take his livestock to graze at certain times of the year. But due to environmental changes caused by climate variability, the usual pastures have now gone. If they had access to IoT information and remote sensors to provide data on moisture levels and pasture availability at certain locations, accessible on a mobile phone, they would know where to go.

There’s not enough knowledge on how smallholder farmers and their families are using digital technologies, so at the Chair, we explore this first of all. Once we understand how they are using technology, then we can start working with them so they can really benefit from it. Smallholders have the farming knowledge – they know the local context and the fields, they know what grows and what doesn’t grow, but we have some knowledge on technology. Working together to pool our knowledge would enable us to think about what would really benefit smallholder farmers, instead of coming in with our own ideas. I believe very passionately that if people are not involved in designing the solutions, they will never be truly emancipated by them.

Big Data is expected to have a large impact on ‘smart’ farming for the future. How can policy help to stimulate the inclusion of smallholder voices in the development of new technologies and digital initiatives?

In many parts of the world, digital is associated with ‘male’ but in the same parts of the world, often it’s the women who do a lot of the agriculture and are still excluded from using digital technologies. If women are doing much of the smallholder farming, that needs to change to enable them to benefit from it. Policymakers need to look at the multidimensionality of poverty and marginalisation, and think holistically around technology and development. This is one reason we have created TEQtogether to change men’s attitudes and behaviours towards women and technology.

Big Data will only help the poor and marginalised be emancipated when they can use it and analyse it themselves. They need to be involved in the decision-making if we are really serious about eliminating rural poverty and improving farming for smallholders. It’s not about training them to use our technologies, it’s about designing the technologies so that they can use them easily in their own interests.

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