How ICT is helping farmers and combating climate change

Greenhouse gases from agriculture account for over ten percent of total emissions globally, roughly equivalent to the entire global transport sector. Meanwhile, it is estimated that agricultural production will need to increase by about 70% by 2050 to keep pace with global population growth. What’s more, the real impacts of climate change on the agricultural sector are likely going to be hardest felt in many of those countries whose people rely on agriculture most for their livelihoods. In sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, for example, some estimates show a reduction in the productivity of most major food crops as a result of changes to the climate over the next forty years.

While this may sound like a doom and gloom scenario, this Earth Day I want to focus on an area of promise: the increasing availability of affordable technologies that have the potential to reduce greenhouse gases and increase productivity in agriculture. I am referring here not to agricultural technologies—although those certainly play a role—but rather to information and communications technologies, like the mobile phone, video, and even radio. If you are wondering how a mobile phone, a video camera, and a radio might relate at all to climate change, allow me to explain.

For starters, so-called “climate-smart” methods of agriculture, such as conservation agriculture, agroforestry, and others already exist. The challenge is that not all farmers know about them, there is no single prescription, and traditional practices can often die hard, particularly when you are working with very small margins and taking risks could spell utter ruin for yourself and your family. So how do ICTs change this? In short, they make it easier to share locally relevant information on improved techniques and to provide time-specific information and recommendations (such as weather forecasts, and when to do what).

As mobile phone penetration rates continue to grow at a rapid rate throughout the globe, farmers now have access to a growing number of agricultural information services both through SMS and voice. In some cases, these services charge farmers a fee for access to agricultural content and advice, while others provide it for free through donor subsidies, or by selling advertising and providing other services, like user surveys. Many are accessed directly by the farmer, although others rely on a trusted community intermediary with access to the device.

In addition to mobile phone services, a growing number of agricultural organizations and agribusinesses have been using low-cost video equipment to create locally made extension videos to share the stories of farmers who have made the change to more sustainable practices with their peers in other communities. And not to be outdone, by coupling mobile phone access with radio access, interactive radio programs are being developed that are completely transforming rural radio from a one-way disseminator of information to a two-way exchange of sharing and learning.

Certainly not all services are created equally, and the depth of research on impact is still fairly shallow, but what the research to date has shown has been promising. This is particularly the case when we look at the rate of adoption of new practices. To be sure, not all of the agricultural content providers are promoting environmentally sustainable farming methods. The fact though that these technologies are leading to changes in agricultural practice over control groups without access to these services is telling. Here’s a selection of some of what we do know: research by the Grameen Foundation on its Community Knowledge Worker program in Uganda, which shares agricultural content via mobile phone, found a significant and positive impact in the use of organic manure within communities with access to this program; while research by Farm Radio International found that having a radio station call out to farmers can increase adoption rates by up to 14%; and a pilot study on the impact of low-cost video on agricultural practices in India by Digital Green found video to be up to ten times more cost effective on a cost per adoption basis than traditional extension methods alone (although more recent analysis by Digital Green is showing slightly lower, but still significant impact).

Of course, the potential impact of ICT on its own is not enough to overcome the very real climate and food security challenges that the world faces over the next several decades. It is important to remember that while the technologies can be used to support the transition to more sustainable agricultural practices, they still require someone to create high quality and relevant content, and someone to pay for the dissemination of that information. Compared to the state of agricultural extension in much of the world prior to the ready availability of these technologies however, there is cause for optimism that just as technology has enabled the rapid spread of entertainment like Angry Birds and Gangnam Style, it may also facilitate a faster transition to environmentally friendlier forms of agriculture in the parts of the world that need them most. And while that alone won’t solve the problem, it is certainly a helpful start.

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