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Four building stones for a vibrant ICT environment

A vibrant enabling environment is vital for creativity, stimulus and optimism on which ICT4Ag initiatives can generate impact. Developers and innovators have to learn from cases, either successful or not, when it comes to the environments or contexts where they have been deployed. There are four areas on which an enabling environment depends.

The explosion in mobile phone usage in the African, Caribbean and Pacific regions has come about, in large part, because governments have liberalised the telecommunications sector, allowing private companies to compete to supply phones and networks that people find affordable. Despite these successes, some regulations might constrain further growth of the ICT sector by, for example, inhibiting innovation or limiting network expansion. Thus, national and local governments are important players for a sustainable growth model, in particular for ICT4Ag initiatives. Once they have endorsed a new project, governments need to provide consistent support to its implementation. A focus on four building stones for the enabling environment is eminent.

Promoting research and innovation

Take for example Ignitia, a tropical weather forecast company that developed a disruptive technology, allowing smallholder farmers in West Africa to access accurate weather predictions (see also ICT Update issue 83). The need of accurate weather forecasting models is important for farmers in order to plan their activities accordingly. It was a study by the Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden on how innovative entrepreneurs could scale-up while engaging with end users in rural area that involved Ignitia, which is headquartered in Sweden and has subsidiaries in Ghana and Nigeria. The team took two years (and total of 15 man years) to research and develop a high-resolution tropical forecast model, from a large amounts of satellite data and algorithms developed by the team, before their service was first piloted with farmers in Northern Ghana. Delivering a better forecast by using mobile phones, resulted in a yield increase for the service users, which in turn may lead to increased economic status and poverty reduction.

This example shows the crucial role that research and extension systems play in ICT development in agriculture. The study of the Royal Institute of Technology favoured a deeper development of the knowledge on weather forecast, which had generated solutions aiming to solve a specific issue for famers in tropical areas. It also reveals the fact that many developing countries do not have sufficient resources to develop properly their capacity to innovate. This is another proof that public and private sector should invest in research and innovation and, most importantly, ensure that their investments give concrete results on the ground.

Legal and institutional support

Law and regulation play an essential role in society to protect citizens, businesses and the public interest. However, facing rapid changes in technology, law and regulation making can become a nightmare considering the wide range of areas concerned with technological innovation for agriculture (e.g. satellite, personal or market data, technological patents).

The case of Unmanned Aerials Vehicle (UAVs), also known as drones, applied to farming in order to help increase crop production and monitor crop growth well illustrates the need to catalyse innovations and knowledge through a regulated framework. The use of advanced sensors and digital imaging capabilities enable farmers to use these drones to help them gather a richer picture of their fields. All information gathered by UAVs can support farmers’ decisions for the increase of their productivity or incomes, or both.

On the other side, reckless and indiscreet use of UAVs by civilians, from paparazzi drones to unauthorized UAVs flights over restricted areas, have raised serious concerns about leaving the technology unregulated. To respond to these concerns, some developing countries already implemented regulations on the use of the technology by civilians, while others have banned the use of UAVs without explicit permission from authorities. In Ghana, there are more than 28 rules to operate UAVs while they are banned and only permitted for military use in Cote d’Ivoire, and no specific regulations are currently known in Burkina Faso, according to the Global Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems Regulations Database. The situation in West-Africa shows the lack of a harmonised set of rules for the use of small UAVs in public airspace. A restrictive regulation, a relative supervision and an uncontrolled activity give unequal opportunities for innovators into the benefits of UAVs technology, as well as for the farmers. Narrowing this gap surely requires a diversity of efforts. Among them, an emphasis on collaborative approaches between innovators and regulators stand as a good starting point as it promotes an inclusive sharing of the expertise and resources during the regulation-making process.

A safe and healthy economic environment

A profitable business model becomes hard to achieve when the economic environment is not propitious or fair for entrepreneurship and innovation.

The cost of an ICT4Ag innovation is high and has to be paid back with a revenue flow from mostly poor farmers. Sector-specific taxes, such as airtime excise and SIM taxes, imposed in developing countries on both consumers and mobile operators affect the affordability of services, and reduce incentives for investment and rollout in rural, less profitable areas. For example, an SMS message to request information can cost €0.15 in Zambia, while a call to an interactive voice response (IVR) service in Côte d’Ivoire costs more than twice that. Mobile subscribers across East Africa face taxes at some of the highest levels worldwide, according to GSMA. Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania impose mobile-specific taxes that when added to VAT can result in consumers facing taxes as high as 30% in Uganda and Tanzania, and 27% in Kenya.

M-Kilimo, a farmer help-line launched in 2009 in Kenya, was no longer functioning in 2011 after initially being very successful and reached over 20,000 users by 2010. It was a donor-funded project, but high operation costs made the business unsustainable after funding had run out.

Coordinated advocacy

ICTs can have a major impact on countries’ development. However, ICT4Ag initiatives, as subcomponents of agricultural and economic growth, are not always priorities for developing countries compared to the other challenges they face in for example health, education and security.

Governments and policy-makers are at the heart of creating a well-functioning enabling environment for ICT4Ag innovations. In return, these innovations contribute positively to development with the creation of business opportunities, increase of quality, productivity and incomes.

Still the recognition of the opportunities is lacking at the level of many decision-makers. To help them to create an enabling environment for innovation in ICT4Ag, there is a need to raise awareness. Advocacy carries more weight if international, national and local organisations with similar views and interests work together, a collaborative approach between agricultural value chain, innovators and businesses is the key to support innovations with a better impact.

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In ICT Update and on websites as ICT4D, CTA has covered the explosive growth and proliferation of digital and mobile phone technologies for agriculture. Now CTA takes the next step with developing the Apps4Ag database, a comprehensive, up-to-date and responsive database of ICTs including mobile, web, animation, audio, and video applications involved in the food value chains.

A selection of interesting websites, online platforms and literature on web-based and mobile applications for agriculture in the context of developing countries.

The Apps4Ag database is developed by CTA and is an online collection of over 500 applications, which provides new ways to find and discover worldwide ICT innovations for agriculture. How can you make the most of this database on www.apps4ag.org?

The Apps4Ag database has over 500 online and mobile applications and services for stakeholders in the food value chain. ICT Update gives you an insight what users from farmers, traders, researchers and decision-makers can find in the database.

Investment in mobile agricultural services is likely to be most effective where the technology is integrated into specific systems and organisational routines that are developed by new or established local innovators. They are the drivers for developing new processes and new networks on the ground that promote scale efficiencies along the value chain.

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A vibrant enabling environment is vital for creativity, stimulus and optimism on which ICT4Ag initiatives can generate impact. Developers and innovators have to learn from cases, either successful or not, when it comes to the environments or contexts where they have been deployed. There are four areas on which an enabling environment depends.

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ICT4Ag models in the developing world are proliferating. Yet most players are not yet translating momentum into impact at scale. Despite the growth of opportunities, a very small proportion of the global ICT4Ag funding targets smallholder farmers in developing countries. Rethinking strategic approaches for ICT4Ag funding can change this.

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