The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is pleased to present the 2018 Next Generation Delegates blog series. This year’s Delegation was comprised of 27 outstanding students from universities across the United States and around the world studying agriculture, food, and related disciplines. We were thrilled to feature these emerging leaders at the Global Food Security Symposium 2018, and look forward to sharing the exciting work of this extraordinary group.
Early in my career, I had the opportunity to visit an emerging Asian country, and I was stunned by the numerous benefits of the widely adopted electronic wallet system to urban and rural populations and businesses. Regardless of their education level, age or occupation, all individuals had access to well-designed technology which allowed faster and more reliable daily transportation, shopping, and business transactions. With the rapid adoption and success of mobile phone based technologies in Africa, there is a similar prospect for an improved business environment in the agricultural and service industries. The recent emergence of mobile money in Sub-Saharan Africa has the potential to pave the way for a more efficient and more profitable agriculture. Not only could it alleviate the hurdles of input financing, but it could also address the recurrent issue of market failure.
Unlike previous agricultural technologies such as improved seed and machinery that smallholders inconsistently adopt with difficulties, mobile payment systems were eagerly embraced by rural populations in countries such as Kenya, Tanzania, and Zambia. Rural farmers typically use mobile money for remittances, but increasingly mobile payments are used to perform market transactions, input procurement, and for savings. Moreover, this technology has the benefit of supplying a large quantity of data that can be utilized to strengthen the entire value chain in the agri-food sector through credit profiling and insurance. The potential success of this payment method in agriculture has led various development institutions to support its diffusion among wider communities.
My research objective is to determine the conditions for a successful diffusion and a positive return of digital technologies in agriculture with a particular focus on mobile money. Despite its rapid adoption, mobile money could face the same decline in interest as a variety of technologies abandoned by farmers before or after extension is discontinued. Moreover, the effects of digital payments across sectors or geographic areas is unknown. The goal of my research is to quantify this effect across various types of farmers under the assumption that most farmers will adapt a profitable technology. Knowing when and where digital technologies are profitable can help design better policies around successful business models in agriculture and contribute to the fight against food insecurity.
The 2018 Global Food security symposium provided critical insight on the approaches to tackle food insecurity in the world. A focus of the symposium was a call to invest in youth inclusive agricultural transformation by enabling a new generation of agro-entrepreneurs, which was an encouraging message as it supports my research interests.The rationale for my study is that mobile money and other digital technologies, if profitable, can attract and sustain jobs of many of the young job seekers. The speakers raised other several important points. For example, I learned that it was critical to account for the farmers’ opinion about a new technology before its implementation, which is not always the case in numerous projects in developing countries.
Another striking fact that was discussed is the importance of a holistic approach to development interventions. A speaker related the misery of a beneficiary of a nutrition program whose previously healthy kid dramatically lost weight after a disease due to poor sanitation. All of the potential benefits of the program were undermined by an unexpected factor that was not accounted for by the nutrition program. There is also the problem of competing development institutions that intervene in the same village through rival projects. I personally witnessed how detrimental project competition can be when I saw farmers putting less effort in their current subsidized farm when they were allocated equipment for a new plot by a non-profit organization. There is a dire need for better coordination in development projects among vulnerable communities to avoid worsening their conditions and instead focus on each set of unique needs necessary to build local capacity and sustainable solutions.
The symposium finally stressed the importance of innovative approaches in public development interventions as well as private initiatives in the agri-food sector. Prominent examples included new agricultural careers created by a non-profit organization in India as well as the innovative agricultural services in Kenya. The successful experiences of public and private actors in the sector suggest a promising future of agriculture as a business. These experiences should be analyzed and integrated into holistic development approaches that could simultaneously address various inefficiencies in the agricultural value chain.
As with cell phone adoption, mobile money adoption is rising at a fast rate in the developing world. With the increasing celerity and quantity of data generated along with a permanently rising computational power, there are more opportunities to create and sustain profitable businesses in the agri-food sector. Research on the potential effect of digital technologies on farm profitability could convince policymakers and inform their decisions on interventions to tackle food insecurity. However, beyond digital technologies, there are multiple innovative methods laid out in the symposium that could contribute to addressing the unnoticed facets of the issue of food security.