March 22, 2017 | By

A Food-Secure Future: Capitalizing on Technological Innovation

On February 1, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs launched a new blog series, A Food-Secure Future, to explore the challenges that threaten global food security and the opportunities that exist to overcome hunger and malnutrition once and for all. We will publish one post each week addressing these issues, and our series will culminate with the release of a new Council report at the Global Food Security Symposium 2017. Join the discussion using #GlobalAg, and tune in to the symposium live stream on March 30.

There is no doubt that the global food system is facing great challenges—from evolving demand, to climate and resource pressures, to widespread conflict and migration. There is optimism, though, in the evolution of many new tools that we have to communicate, track progress, and make informed decisions about agricultural growth and food security. As much as these tools can be distributed to farmers and agricultural entrepreneurs worldwide, the more agile, effective, and equitable our food system will be.

In the Age of Mobile

Chief among these technological transformations has been the proliferation of mobile technology, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa.  According to a survey of seven African countries by the Pew Research Center, around two thirds of adults own a cell phone, and over half who don’t personally own one share with others. In some countries, this is up from 10 percent cell ownership in 2002. It is important to note, though, that women are still less likely to own a cellphone than are men—in Uganda, for example, that’s 54 percent of women as opposed to 77 percent of men.

This dispersion of mobile technology has not only allowed for a variety of applications to agriculture and food security, but it has also changed the landscape in which development efforts can be implemented.  

A variety of agricultural development initiatives, for example, are centered around the use of increasingly popular mobile money platforms. Many smallholder farmers still conduct transactions in cash, which requires that they travel long distances to receive or make payments, and leaves them without a financial identity or transaction history.  They also may receive payments late or be vulnerable to theft or fraud when transporting cash. However, mobile money providers and traditional aid donors are both taking action to change this, with efforts like Smart Money—a mobile money provider which is offering a no fee model for withdrawals and transfers in rural Tanzania and Uganda—and the UN Capital Development Fund’s Mobile Money for the Poor (MM4P) program—which is coordinating partnerships with companies like Uganda’s Kyagalanyi Coffee Ltd. to synchronize services and digitize payments to its farmers.

And, mobile money platforms have had tremendous uses beyond payments—for extension, market and weather information, and financial services more broadly. For example, the mAgri Challenge Fund, launched by the GSMA (a mobile operator aggregator) and the UK Government, is expanding efforts that offer farm productivity and nutrition information to farmers, or increase access to financial products like insurance, credit, and farm equipment leasing. CGIAR has also partnered with tech groups like the Kenya-based Esoko Networks, to provide real-time market and weather information and helpline services to farmers in Ghana.

Mobile technologies are, and have great potential to continue, revolutionizing farmers’ ability to access and manage information to improve their productivity and engage effectively in markets—while at the same time increasing their access to financial services and investment opportunities.

Better Data through Satellite Technology

Satellite technology also offers enormous benefits for agricultural productivity, allowing for rich data collection and informed decision-making—and, it’s increasingly available to farmers in low- and middle-income countries.

The uses for satellite and sensing technology in agriculture are many. According to DigitalGlobe—a global provider of high-resolution Earth imagery and data—remote sensing allows farmers to detect variability in soil and crop conditions, manage fields and reduce inputs, mitigate risks, and schedule harvests. Satellite imagery can help farmers locate nutrient deficiencies and or pest infestations in crops. It allows farmers to schedule irrigation based on how much water a particular crop is using, and can offer data on everything from plant vigor to soil moisture. Digital Globe’s images are also able to capture changes over short periods of time, allowing farmers the ability to take nimble action to protect or improve crop yields.

The breadth of information offered by satellite imagery can serve as a powerful risk mitigation tool for farmers. Particularly in regions in which agriculture is not well insulated from the impacts of floods or droughts, satellite information can help farmers take action early on to prevent losses. These can take the form of agricultural insurance schemes that are triggered when a satellite identifies specific signs of drought—such as specific degree of crop loss as a result of water scarcity, for example. Once a certain crop loss threshold is reached, an insurance payout is made to the insured farmer. Early response mechanisms to agricultural shocks can also be incorporated into social safety nets. The Ethiopian government, for one, used satellite-based technology to pre-evaluate its 2011 drought, and responded by including three million new beneficiaries in its cash-transfer program—beneficiaries that would have otherwise lost considerable income due to the drought.

The use of these satellites over time allows for modeling and forecasting of crop yields and a variety of field conditions. The data they can provide is invaluable to farmers everywhere—and as it becomes increasingly accessible to farmers in low- and middle-income countries, the better they can make determinations about planting, harvesting, and risk.

Spreading the Wealth

Technological innovation is transforming our ability to interact—with crops, with weather, with markets. The tools listed in this post are but two of the mechanisms that are helping to transform the agricultural sector, especially in low- and middle-income countries. This is to say nothing of the many new techniques and technologies that are directly improving agricultural productivity, crop nutrition, food processing, and others.

It is important to note, however, that we have a long way to go in putting these technologies to work for farmers everywhere. 1.2 billion people on the planet still don’t have access to electricity—and 95 percent of those people live in Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, predominantly in rural areas. As the global food system faces increasing pressures, we need to ensure that every farmer and every food chain has the best chance to forge ahead. The good news? We have the technology, and we’re innovating every day—it’s all a matter of allocation and access.

And that’s where we’ll leave you with the Food-Secure Future series—with great hurdles ahead, but with great hope for what’s to come. Look out for the release of our new report, Stability in the 21st Century: Global Food Security for Peace and Prosperity, and the Global Food Security Symposium on March 29-30, where we’ll detail recommendations for global action on food and nutrition security and agricultural development. 


The Global Food and Agriculture Program aims to inform the development of US policy on global agricultural development and food security by raising awareness and providing resources, information, and policy analysis to the US Administration, Congress, and interested experts and organizations.

The Global Food and Agriculture Program is housed within the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. The Council on Global Affairs convenes leading global voices and conducts independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

Support for the Global Food and Agriculture Program is generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


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