Digital advisory services for smallholder families in Africa and Asia

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PICTURE: Indian farmers receive training on the use of digital tools. view After

Credit: © Grameen Foundation

Smallholders produce two-thirds of all the food in the world. Yet the majority of these roughly 500 million farmers live in poverty. Their production is sensitive to the impacts of climate change. At the same time, they have limited access to information on farming practices that could help them increase their production, conserve resources and maintain their livelihoods.

Digitally supported agricultural extension services offer an opportunity to change this. To date, however, they have only reached a small fraction of smallholders in the South. One way to achieve significant gains in terms of yields and improve living conditions is to involve women and young people: they represent more than half of those engaged in agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia.

Target women and young people in particular

The “Agripath” project opens new avenues: “The aim of the project is to develop effective, efficient and large-scale counseling services which involve as many smallholder families as possible, in particular integrating women and young people” Says Sonja Vogt, Professor of Sustainable Social Development at the University of Bern: “To achieve this goal, we are developing technical innovations that promote changes in people’s attitudes and social norms related to agriculture.”

To enable the widest possible impact towards sustainable agriculture, explains Sonja Vogt, all family members must be involved. Therefore, it is essential to know who in the household has access to a mobile phone and therefore to digital services, as well as how farming decisions are made within the family. “In addition, we are particularly focused on the effective, country-specific and context-specific dissemination of sustainable farming methods among local communities,” says Nicole Harari, project coordinator at the Center for Development and Environment of the University of Bern.

Starting with five countries on two continents and expanding around the world

The project targets 50,000 smallholder families in Burkina Faso, Uganda, Tanzania, India and Nepal, as well as 250 private and public agricultural extension service providers. Scaling-up of results in at least six other countries is planned from the outset through an extensive network of partners including ministries of agriculture, NGOs, the private sector and regional and international organizations, thus enabling Agripath to have the broadest impact possible.

Lessons learned from Agripath will be made available in a toolkit for digital advisory service providers – both in countries where the project is active and worldwide. In addition, the project consortium will provide long-term implementation and application support to digital vendors. The Farmbetter application used and developed for this research will be available for download free of charge.

Combine on-site consultation and digital solutions

The project will also provide new information on the most promising type of counseling in which cases. Using a new ‘mixed methods’ approach, the project will combine digital data collection with field experiments and randomized controlled trials. This will allow studying the impacts of three variants on farmer behavior: a purely digital solution with an extension service app that farmers can use themselves; a model in which extension service providers use the app in their work with farmers; as well as a hybrid model in which smallholders can use digital advisory services themselves and, if necessary, have access to on-site technical extension services.

In addition, focus groups and extensive digital data collection to assess attitudes and behaviors will generate country-specific knowledge on gender and youth participation in sustainable agriculture. “It is at the heart of the contextual design and therefore of the acceptance of the digital extension tool”, emphasizes Nicole Harari.

Close collaboration between science and practice

Agripath is a project of the Center for Development and Environment (CDE) and the Institute of Sociology – both of the University of Bern – in collaboration with the Grameen Foundation USA, the Grameen Foundation India, the International Center for Physiology and ecology of insects icipe, as well as Farmbetter SA The Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) is supporting the project through the TRANSFORM program with 5 million Swiss francs. The project is based on close collaboration with the agricultural advisers of the Grameen Foundation and the start-up Farmbetter Ltd. This app provides application-oriented information on sustainable farming practices and promotes climate resilience and productivity of smallholder agriculture in developing countries. The project begins in 2021 and continues until 2025.

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