"We wanted to do things differently from the usual conferences," said CTA's ICT4D Programme Coordinator Benjamin Addom, who organised the hands-on event. "The idea was to show new ICT innovations in the agricultural sector and give opportunities to participants to play with them and get involved with the technologies."
Despite some technical difficulties at the venue in Kigali, Rwanda, the Plug and Play Day, held during CTA's 2013 ICT4Ag Conference, was widely hailed as a ground-breaking event. More than 300 people milled around a hall to explore some of the 36 innovations on show.
Participants were encouraged to test-drive the latest mobile, web 2.0 and social media applications, and discover how they could make these tools work for them in their own agricultural activities.
With most of the ICT products developed by young people, the occasion provided a welcome opportunity for them to showcase their innovations. For the public, it offered a chance to try out some of a wide range of exciting technologies designed to improve practices at various stages along the agricultural value chain.
"We wanted to bring young innovators into the limelight and give them a platform to market their innovations," said Addom. "The apps targeted a whole range of stakeholders. There were some aimed at researchers, others for traders, some for extension agents, still others for policy makers, and some designed for farmers themselves on the ground, to help them get appropriate information."
"Increasing visibility was one of our goals, but we also wanted people to be aware of other ICT4Ag applications – maybe people in different geographical contexts and locations," he added. "An important aspect of the event was helping innovators to network, so they could compare with others working in the same area."
Among the products on show were new search engines for extension agents, low-cost video technologies for improved knowledge sharing, an online collaborative tool for agricultural researchers and up-to-date market information platforms for traders and producers.
Some of the innovations are already up and running and producing good results, while others are still in the development phase. Designed by teams from all over the world, they are predominantly the result of private start-ups, though a few have also been developed by NGOs or research institutes. In common, all the innovations stem from a strong determination to harness ICTs as a way of providing practical solutions for common agricultural challenges.
One app, called mfisheries and developed in the Caribbean, consists of a suite of mobile and web-based applications to help fisherfolk and other players in the value chain. Its features include a virtual marketplace, navigational and at-sea safety tools, training sessions in a range of subjects and audio podcast tips on themes relating to safety at sea, fishing methods and quality assurance. There is also a camera tool for reporting matters of concern to fisherfolk.
A mobile application developed and piloted in Uganda is helping to detect fake agro inputs, enabling users to check whether the fertiliser, seeds and pesticides they are buying are authentic, by submitting an SMS query to a short code number. In another booth, visitors were invited to try out an easy-to-use software tool which enables radio-stations to draw listeners into broadcasts, so they can take part in public debates through interactive radio shows and SMS. And a mobile app that specifically targets young farmers provides online and offline agricultural information in the form of text, audio and animations, with tips from other farmers from all over the world and step-by-step advice on agricultural practices.
Effective business models
A number of apps showcased at the Plug and Play Day attracted the interest of investors, who mingled with other visitors moving among the stands. In other cases, innovators still need to develop effective business models if their platforms are to be commercial.
"We realised that this is a major problem for many developers," said Addom. "They don't have a strong business approach to make their apps sustainable."
The next Plug and Play Day, scheduled for July 14 in Nairobi, Kenya, will seek to address this and other issues that emerged from the first event. The theme of this conference is "Revolutionising Finance for Agricultural Value Chain", and the CTA Plug and Play team is already reviewing some of the many proposals submitted from around the world.
Meanwhile, the general consensus is that the Plug and Play Day was a valuable opportunity for both application developers and the target audience.
"All the app developers who took part drew interest from people who came to the event, and many of them saw interest from potential investors," said Addom. "It was just one day, but it was a historic day. What set it apart was the energy from beginning to end. It's definitely an event to be repeated."