While information and communications technologies (ICTs) have been part of African agriculture and rural communities for many years, benefits associated with these technologies have eluded the majority of farmers, traders and value chain actors. There is now a strong feeling that most ICT initiatives constitute smearing of digital “lipstick” on African agriculture and rural development. The proliferation of mobile phones has been used to wrongly conclude that mobile technology is already changing the way farmers and ordinary people communicate and consume. Proponents of digitalisation are not going beyond smartphones and dozens of mobile applications that are not speaking to each other. Gadgets such as iPads and smartphones continue to be pushed into communities without commensurate effort in re-imagining how different agricultural commodities and knowledge move along different value chains and networks.
Eight ICT frustrations confronting African agricultural communities
From interacting with thousands of value chain actors across Africa and observing their tussle with ICTs, eMKambo has been able to tease out eight major frustrations, explained below:
*Failure to foster natural interactive patterns: Unlike natural ways of sharing knowledge, ICTs are failing to support authentic interactive dialogue between farmers, between farmers and traders and among other value chain actors.
If one farmer in a farming conversation does not have airtime to either call back or send a short message service, there is no conversation. Where farmers and traders succeed in calling each other or exchange short message services, technology cannot sufficiently convey a sense of urgency, happiness or desperation. One ends up associating the number of call-me backs with some level of desperation, yet that may not be the case. At the end, it makes sense for farmers to use $5 to get on a bus and visit a fellow farmer or the market than spend all that money trying to call or send a short message. The convenience promised by technology is costing farmers more than it is rewarding them.
*Mobile technology has not been informed by majority needs: From a menu of mobile services such as voice, short message service, email and others, farmers prefer voice because it is more humane and can build relationships. When a farmer is calling in connection with agribusiness, the farmer wants to communicate directly with someone who has the knowledge about issues that are bothering the farmer. Technology should understand farmers’ needs, solutions and relationships with traders, extension agents and policy makers among other sources of knowledge. Can technology provide all types of information and relationships farmers crave for? It is that content and knowledge from knowledgeable sources that farmers want built into mobile technology. Currently, a lot is lost as technology tries to translate and end up generalising nuances and knowledge patterns.
*Integrating content and technology remains a big challenge: Most digital technology developers don’t seem to understand the characteristics of African content and diverse users such as farmers, transporters and vendors. Ideally developers should be conversant with all aspects of agriculture in order to creatively capture contextual realities. Unfortunately there are no software developers at growth points and rural business centres where a lot of content is available. Most mobile apps are merely spoon-fed with content such that they become generic yet agricultural knowledge and solutions are contextual. Rather than trying to build a mobile app for an entire national agricultural ecosystem, developers must ensure mobile apps are part of community knowledge centres and Communities of Practice.
The majority of African mobile platforms are not able to interpret market information like prices. If farmers receive a message indicating that prices of maize at market A are $3 per bucket and $5 per bucket at market B, technology is not able to mention that prices at market A are lower because farmers travel 40km to this market while those, who bring maize to market B travel 100km. People who receive such information are misled to believe that market B offers better prices. Decision-making intelligence still requires human intervention.
*Mobile technology triggers more questions than it can answer: It continues to miss human senses such as touch, smell, sight and taste which are very important in agriculture. Human senses are the main reason why market transactions cannot be concluded without samples of commodities being seen, touched, and in some cases, tasted. Market prices without human senses are a string of meaningless numbers. On the other hand, where people scout for knowledge on the internet, most of the information is not contextual but literature review from other parts of the world. Such information is valueless.
*Each community has its own coping strategies: While the convenience potential of technology has been over-sold, it is impossible to develop an app that captures all national coping strategies. Ownership of mobile phones has exposed people to all forms of unsolicited messages. A lot of unsolicited information that flows into mobile phones is uncomfortable for most farmers and traders. As if that is not enough, technology is being introduced too fast in urban areas, leaving the grassroots behind. It is not being enough given time to mature and connect with all forms of local knowledge. Ideally, technology should connect local Communities of Practice (CoPs) so that they are able to speak with each other. Value chain actors should be able to appraise evidence while connecting with each other virtually. At the moment, people in African urban centres can go on Skype with someone in the United Kingdom or the US, but cannot do the same with farmers in close farming communities. When technology gets to the point of enabling that level of interaction it will have started meeting authentic needs of African agriculture.
*Most government institutions are ill-equipped for digital technology: This is surprising given that almost every African government has a ministry responsible for information and ICTs. Such a ministry should build ICT capabilities in other ministries such as agriculture, health, industry & commerce, etc. Each ministry has its own needs which should be met through ICTs. On the contrary, most African government ministries are out-sourcing ICT developers, some with no knowledge of what those ministries want to achieve. For instance, developers for the Ministry of Health may have no clue about health issues but provide generic ICT services for all government departments. Since farmers and rural communities do not function according to government ministries, ICTs should be used to consolidate activities by all government departments at grassroots level.
*Mobile technology is treated more like a fashion than a resource: For many young Africans, technology has become a fashion. Parents buy their children the latest smartphones irrespective of the value that such a gadget should add to the child and the whole community in terms of knowledge. Instead of making children behave better, smartphones are rendering them anti-social and counter-productive in knowledge sharing. Emphasis on social media has made young people more interested in sharing jokes, as opposed to serious business and livelihood issues. Unfortunately, addiction to social media is also spreading to farming communities at the expense of efforts to build processes for positive change.
*Mobile money is still to live up to its name for most people: In countries like Zimbabwe, mobile money is still locked within particular mobile service providers. You have to send money to someone with a line from the same mobile service provider with you. Yet in real life, people belong to diverse knowledge networks and that brings the much needed diversity. Even within a family people can have mobile lines from different mobile operators. By locking relationships in mobile channels, technology is contravening human values.
Another critical short-coming is the high cost of transactions since mobile money charges accrue per transaction. If $10 is sent to 100 people one at a time through mobile money, that whole amount will have been eaten by charges by the time it gets to the 100th person. In fact, it will have been withdrawn from circulation by the mobile service provider. As a result, charges severely reduce the amount of money circulating along value chains. Yet if that $10 is handed physically to 100 people one by one, the 100th person will still get $10. Besides inability to generate a transaction record, which can be used to transact with other actors such as banks and input providers, mobile money has proven to be not convenient for day-to-day family uses like buying bread and paying for transport. Such activities require real cash ranging from 1c, 2c, 5c and notes. There are levels at which mobile money may make sense. It cannot mimic special intuitional relationships between a business person and his/her money. After transacting, there is something naturally appealing about touching cash and sorting it into notes and coins before deciding how to use it in different ways. From a planning point of view, the business person may want to use coins for certain transactions and notes for other separate activities. Technology developers have to realise that people think about money differently from how they think about other things.