Partnerships and multi-sectoral investment are key in scaling out successful technologies for smallholder farmers and to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, says CTA director, Michael Hailu.
What does digitalisation mean for the work of CTA?
CTA has been using ICTs for many years to bring technologies for application in agricultural operations at different levels of the value chain. For more than 20 years, we have been testing and introducing different technologies in ICTs, starting from CD-ROMs and evolving onwards with new technologies, like mobile technologies and satellite data. We have been testing the technologies with farmers and seeing how they can be useful in improving productivity and profitability. We have been doing some of this on a small scale but now there is a great deal of interest from the private sector and governments in harnessing ICTs for agricultural development. A key issue is: how do we take these technologies to scale? We hope our experience capitalisation activities will help us find answers to this question – our role is catalytic. CTA has been making these technologies accessible to farmers, but to scale up we need to work with the big players, like the private sector, governments and other development partners.
Can digitalisation help scale out technologies of use to farmers?
Absolutely. I think there is much that digitalisation can offer in terms of connecting farmers to markets, for example, and helping in the process of improving productivity and creating resilience; farmers can tell how much fertiliser they can use; they are able to reduce inputs while increasing yields and returns. There are so many possibilities where you can apply digitalisation. We need to make the strategic investment in digital innovations, so we can make them available to a large number of farmers.
In your view, is there political will in the ACP region to support digitalisation as an opportunity for farmers and farming?
When you talk about the ACP region, it is of course a very large region, made up of 79 countries. Policies differ from one country to another but, overall, there is global recognition that digitalisation is a disruptive technology. The top five companies in the world are technology companies, and this tells us the importance of this technology to development and investment, so we cannot ignore it. We are saying that if you bring technology to agriculture, it can create huge opportunities for inclusivity and for many farmers to benefit by making agriculture profitable. There is strong recognition from many countries about the importance of agriculture – digitalisation is a game change in this sector.I attended the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) Forum in Kigali recently, and the whole issue of digitalisation was high on the agenda, highlighting that we need proper data about production so that decision-makers have easy access to different kinds of data on agriculture. There is the need to leverage technology to make data available to different kinds of users, and there is a very strong appreciation for what technology can bring to agriculture.
Given CTA’s interest in ICTs for agriculture, has anything not worked?
When you test a new technology, it is always the case that there are more failures than successes. Technology innovations have a large rate of failure compared with successes. We have had a lot of failure for different reasons; either the technology was not appropriate, or there were no supporting mechanisms when we deployed it. There are things that continuously fail, but when you succeed there is significant potential. For example, we have been working with partners in Uganda profiling tea farmers in cooperatives and we have been able to capture details about their farms and cooperatives using drones. Farmers have doubled their productivity and profits because of technological interventions. We can scale up these successes.
How do you see CTA’s new strategies strengthening your work with ICTs?
Our current strategy has three key intervention areas: one is promoting youth entrepreneurship and creating employment for young people; the second is the agenda of digitalisation to improve agricultural productivity and profitability; and, the third is promoting climate-smart agriculture innovations. There is a lot of interaction among these different priorities; for example, when you talk about using entrepreneurship in agriculture, technology is critical because young people are attracted to technology. To be engaged in agriculture, technology can play a key role to do that. A lot of our work on entrepreneurship is around technology and digital innovation and how these can help start-ups by young people.