10 Oct 2014
This is the first of a three part series that discusses the outcomes of recent outreach meetings in Rwanda for our ESRC/DFID-funded project on changing internet connectivity in East Africa (part 2 , part 3).
Agriculture is the backbone for many African countries economies. The East Africa region has a population of approximately 135 million with more than 50% of the population living in rural areas undertaking farming and agriculture as their main source of revenue.
We wanted to explore how our research on the internet/ICT use in East African tea production could provide insight into improving agriculture. Specifically, we felt this research could provide in-depth knowledge on information flows (and lack of) that could be useful for technology developers involved in ICT4Ag (ICT for Agriculture). With this goal in mind, the outreach meeting took place in Kigali’s kLab innovation hub, who have been supporting the ICT4Ag agenda in Rwanda.
Present at the workshop were ICT solutions providers, prospective ICT4Ag developers, farmers, and brokers.
Outline of discussions
In this research on the tea sector we took a ‘value chain’ approach. This explores the relationships between firms involved in production of tea (from farmer to retailer) and analyses the ‘value’ that each ‘actor’ in the value chain is able to extract from their involvement in production.
The value chain approach was particularly useful in that it provided insight around information flows in two areas: it highlighted under-considered actors in the value chain; and it revealed post-processing and marketing processes which are often underplayed in ICT discussions.
Firstly, by mapping production in tea in a systematic way, we were able to highlight important elements of agriculture and primary production which have been under-considered by ICT developers and ICT solutions.
For example, in the tea sector, co-operative associations play a vital role in supporting smallholder farmers, they are also likely to be a source of more innovative technology use. Yet, ICT developers and ICT solutions rarely consider them. Indeed in the Rwandan tea sector new ICT solutions, such as automated field weighing technologies, could potentially marginalise co-operatives.
We discussed such actors with meeting delegates who felt that the same under-consideration also applied in other sectors of agriculture. There may be other farmer-supporting ‘intermediaries’ in these sectors, such as government extension workers and NGOs who are also important, but they are rarely the focus of new ICT4Ag solutions.
Secondly, mapping value chains also highlighted new opportunities in post-processing and marketing in agriculture which have hardly been considered by ICT developers.
Examples from the tea sector included evidence that better provision of global tea prices and market intelligence in tea (i.e. competition, end-market analysis) would be a valuable service for tea firms and co-ops, something poorly provided for at present.
The growth in the importance of quality and standards as part of post-processing and marketing also potentially offers new opportunities, where information flows are rarely digitised.
In the outreach meeting, discussions suggested that much of the focus in agriculture has been on farmers involved in production for local markets, where export-orientated sectors such as tea, coffee and horticulture might be more closely considered in the future.
These examples give a very brief flavour of some of our discussions in this meeting, and give an insight into how we identified and shared our research.
For those interested, we have an executive summary of our findings and we will be releasing a full report on the Rwandan tea sector in a few weeks.
How do we make ICT4Ag research relevant to developers?
Some of the most interesting discussions we had actually happened before the meeting in informal discussions with developers in the kLab. For these developers, academic research was seen as having little relevance to their everyday work of developing technology solutions. Research results are often presented in obscure ways with complex theories. So, beyond our research findings we wanted to also discuss the question– what is the point of research for ICT developers?
1) New ways of thinking about a sector – New ways of thinking can highlight new opportunities. For example, our ‘value chain’ approach in the tea sector can highlight surprising outcomes that ICT4Ag developers might look to tackle.
2) Moving beyond speculation – It is often said that the first step to creating a viable technology solution is to ‘know your problem’ and research such as our work in tea (based on over 100 interviews – from farmer co-operatives to some of the worlds’ largest multi-national tea firms) is a valuable resource to be able to understand the activities going on in agriculture.
Moreover, in-depth research can often question conventional knowledge. For instance, our research in tea questions the idea that growing internet use will remove ‘inefficient’ middlemen. So, research can provide developers with new directions and clear knowledge
3) Beyond the generic ICT4Ag solution – As Chris has outlined before in discussing our research, one thing we have found in ICT4Ag is that developers may be pulled toward developing quite generic solutions. Often ICT4Ag solutions revolve around providing information on market prices for farmers or systems which improve access to markets.
In some cases these types of solution can be useful, but one needs to make close consideration to contexts and needs. For instance in our tea research, market access systems have little potential where farmers are already part of global markets for tea (selling via the Mombasa tea auction). ICT4Ag solutions in such cases require more creative and evidence-based solutions if they are to have value.
What can we say about connectivity in agriculture?
In outreach meeting, participants concurred with the fact that there are opportunities for the development of ICTs that improve flows of information and knowledge to tea farmers and cooperatives. Potential opportunities include information provision in terms of sharing agricultural research (fertiliser types, bushes), pest and disease control, provision of global market data and better co-ordination for cooperatives.
However, this work also suggested that connectivity (internet and mobile access, appropriate ICT applications) is not the only barrier to efficient agricultural sectors. During the session, farmers mentioned that they still lack skills to be able to identity appropriate ICT tools all along the farming cycle. Crucially there was also discussion about how many of the actors in Rwanda, particularly farmers are still in subservient relationships with global producers.
Whilst connectivity and well-focussed ICT applications can support improved ability and relationships, it may be that ICTs do not overcome more difficult barriers around skills, uneven relationships and power.
We would like to thanks those who attended the session and contributed to the lively discussions. We would also like to thank kLab for their support in hosting this session.
Please see our summary report on Rwandan tea for more details. We will also be releasing a comprehensive report in late October that summarises this research.