How can technology rebalance food systems so they help the world reach Zero Hunger by 2030? This is the question that Executive Director Ertharin Cousin seeks to answer in a special edition of Foreign Affairs magazine, dedicated to African Farmers in the Digital Age. "Technology simply serves as a vehicle for providing the data, the analysis, the communication, and the access that drives educational, social, political, and economic change, offering farmers an existential helping-hand by opening up previously unimaginable opportunities and choices," says the Executive Director.
Food systems are fundamentally about people-people whose daily routines involve connections with each other as family members and neighbors, and also as suppliers, producers, processors, buyers, and consumers-people who utilize the natural resources and services offered by their ecosystem. In well-functioning food systems, these connections are efficient and predictable enough to provide adequate incentives and returns while delivering safe and nutritious food to consumers. In poorly functioning food systems, however, inefficiency and unpredictability distort incentives and reduce returns, inhibiting food and nutrition security. Too often smallholder farmers in developing countries bear the brunt of such food system failure.
A number of factors contribute to the burden smallholder farmers must carry. In remote areas, markets are highly segmented. Poor roads and lack of infrastructure impose high transaction costs in such markets. Financial institutions are concentrated in urban areas; even where financial institutions capable of serving smallholder farmers exist, access to the credit and financial services required for long-term investment is limited, and the services farmers can access are not tailored to their needs. This exclusion, coupled with weak purchasing power, hinders investment, productivity, and ultimately prosperity.
In order to improve food systems-that is, sustainable community food systems-we must establish entry points along the entire agricultural value chain. We need integrated efforts from farm to fork. Local communities, and particularly farmer organizations, play a crucial role, but they cannot realize the necessary change alone.
Digital Technology's Role
Technology-driven solutions offer the potential to address myriad issues and rebalance food systems to deliver food security for all. Advances in digital technology, in particular, now provide an unprecedented opportunity to overcome isolation and bridge knowledge gaps, creating new opportunities for smallholder farmers and transforming rural communities. As these tools become increasingly available and affordable, the challenge is to ensure that they are both scalable and sustainable.
The World Food Program has witnessed the power of technology to enable change. Under the Purchase for Progress initiative, over one million farmers became better connected to markets, even in places where mobile connectivity is limited. Working through farmer organizations such as the Melik Siltie Cooperative Union in Worabe, Ethiopia, smallholders use the Internet to access the real-time market price information about seeds and fertilizers and to check weather forecasts for the entire region. The Cooperative Union exchanges information on the price of beans and maize with sister unions and even monitors the price of corn at the Commodities Exchange.
Once enough information has been gathered, the union can sell its members' grain profitably on the open market and has the confidence to take capital loans to invest in infrastructure such as storage and processing facilities for quality grains. As a result of these and other uses of information technology, the Melik Siltie Cooperative Union tripled its food aggregation capacity within a three-year period. The end result for these smallholders was increased productivity, greater return on investment, better preparedness against risks and more nutritious food on the table.
Technology And Women Farmers
However, digital technology's promise is not one-size-fits-all. Designing and implementing sustainable technology solutions requires an understanding of local mores and unique community hurdles, in particular a sensitivity to gender-related issues. Women act in every role across the food system-they are producers, processors, sellers, and, of course, consumers. Yet they often have little say in decision-making and don't always have access to the information and tools that would enable them to maximize their contribution.
Technology solutions must affirmatively close agriculture's wide gender gap. Correctly applied, they can not only provide economic and educational opportunities, they can also assist women in overcoming barriers to empowerment, including freedom of movement and freedom of association. Women can use mobile phones to join virtual communities, for example, that generate social capital for their members and overcome barriers that keep women from working together, particularly in geographically disparate, highly segregated, and gendered food systems.
The evidence shows that when groups of women farmers embrace technology, they gain income and financial independence; they are also more likely to use this income and independence to prioritize investments on children's nutrition, health, and education. Gender equality therefore contributes to overall economic growth by expanding the stock of human capital, raising labor productivity, improving agricultural outputs, and reducing food insecurity.
Unfortunately, despite the massive uptake of mobile phones, in many rural areas simply being female already reduces the chances of owning a cell phone by half. This is why gender-blind technology program implementation and information access is neither desirable nor sufficient. Providing mobile devices and connectivity in a targeted way to women farmers will ensure that these virtual communities are created equitably, enabling women to share information, learning and services-
and ultimately empowering every woman everywhere to harness her capabilities and realize her full potential. Investing in rural women is not just the right thing to do, it is the smart thing to do.
Overcoming Barriers To Technology Access
Africa has witnessed exponential growth in the numbers of users of technology since the year 2000. In South Africa and Nigeria, mobile phone usage now equals that in the United States. This level of access to technology, however, is geographically limited. The International Telecommunications Union reports that, on the continent as a whole, less than 20 percent of people are connected to the Internet. Poor infrastructure, irregular power supply and lack of affordable technologies remain major obstacles to expanding connectivity.
With the right national strategies for public and private investment, however, we can quickly overcome these hurdles, particularly for the poorest populations by, for example, incentivizing infrastructure development in isolated and rural areas and by harvesting the unexploited potential of solar power. With the right enabling environment, the private sector investment will flow.
Digital technology alone is not the panacea for all that ails Africa's food systems. Research examining smallholder market participation demonstrates that farmers make decisions based on a wide variety of factors, including transaction costs, the availability of transport and even family size. Technology simply serves as a vehicle for providing the data, the analysis, the communication, and the access that drives educational, social, political, and economic change, offering farmers an existential helping-hand by opening up previously unimaginable opportunities and choices. These opportunities will support the creation of functioning, sustainable, and durable community food systems-that is, if we are able to provide universal access and scale up technology-based agricultural services across the continent.