The most pressing issues in agriculture in developing countries today is information poverty. Barring extreme weather or economic events, poor planning, and poor decision-making is the root problem that eats away at farm capital by gradually reducing margins over each cycle. The agricultural industry is left with less resources to reinvest in fertilizers, pesticides, irrigation and tools – all to the detriment of national food security.
Informational poverty can be roughly broken down into three categories: marketing, regulatory, and technical. Marketing refers to issues of prices and bringing buyers and sellers together – what we at AGROAM work on. Regulatory refers to the political environments in which agricultural entrepreneurs work: subsidies, frameworks, taxes, etc. Technical refers to issues such as breeding, seed selection, and and traditional pest control methods.
The Old: One-Size-Fits-All Agricultural Extension Workers
Before the dramatic drop in internet and technology prices throughout the 1990′s until today, the traditional method of increasing agricultural output and revenues was via the Agricultural Extension Worker. Traditionally, this was either an NGO or a worker within the Ministry of Agriculture, which would travel from village to village giving general advice on best practice for agricultural work. The first recorded use of agricultural extension workers was over 2000 years ago in China, and little has changed since.
The fallacy of agricultural extension work is not that it’s a poor endeavor – it has had well documented success in bringing down malnutrition rates in India and China – but that it’s a terribly inefficient way of disseminating information. If the information is too precise regarding particular crops, then it will not pertain to the majority of farmers that are not growing those crops. If it is overly vague, it will hardly be of use to those who have already been farming for years.
Besides preciseness, agricultural extension suffers from a problem of permanence. As continents such as Asia and Africa become more urbanized, it is increasingly the youth who move to cities first. This is also the generation that needs to learn, retain, and disseminate agricultural knowledge to the next. When they leave the farms for the cities, agricultural extension workers find themselves returning again and again to the same areas, teaching either overly vague, or overly precise information with resources which could be better allocated towards farmer support programs.
The New: Precise Information on Demand
The reduced price of communications has begun to make outdated agricultural extension workers obsolete. For instance, instead of extension workers running agricultural offtake services, users can sign up for free services such as AGROAM – which can facilitate farmer to buyer purchases from the field to the factory without the need for government run warehousing to store excess while finding demand. With free marketing services like AGROAM information can be up to date, accurate and on demand – rather than wasting fuel driving to a market to check prices, or waiting months for extension workers to dictate general market trend information for crop you don’t grow. However, fixing buyers and sellers together, or keeping track of prices, is a relatively easy, data driven process compared to the other two functions of extension workers.
We recently had a chance to speak with Olawale Ojo of Agropreneur Naija. He too shares the concerns of the youth gap in modern Nigerian agriculture. Over a year and a half, he’s been helping thousands to understand the regulatory environment they will be working in by using his blog, facebook, and twitter to reach out to a new generation. With detailed posts ranging from funding opportunities in the cocoa sector, to understanding the relevance of the pan-African Comprehensive Africa Agricultural Development Program as it relates to youth participation, Agropreneur Naija lives up to it’s moto of “Keeping the next generation of agriculturalist informed”. Agropreneur Naija, by using modern communication, is able to replace thousands of extension workers work-hours by using creative, interactive, and highly visible information campaigns.
Technical information is built up in a reiterative method. Through generations of trial and error, the optimal solutions are found, and passed down to the next generation. However, with entire villages now missing generations as the developing world becomes more urbanized, farmers are increasingly relying on new forms of technology to both pass on technical information as well as obtain answers to complex issues.
A great example of this is the facebook group “Farming Kenya”. At over 17,000 members and growing quickly, members often ask for accurate information to local conditions, with every question sparking a conversation of between 3 to 50 responses. Using facebook, they’re adding resilience to their agricultural enterprises by ensuring that instead of the channels of communication being restricted as the youth travel from the farms to the cities, that they leverage existing tools to create new channels of information.
AGROAM has implemented a free forum system for our users at the country level to help facilitate these types of non-data driven discussions that are key to increasing resilience in agricultural communities. The extension workers of the past, when the cost of moving information from one place to another was prohibitive, played the role of the information vector in a “top down” model. As the price of moving great quantities of information has reduced dramatically over the last few decades, and as urbanization continues to the detriment of food-supply chains, it becomes clear that the agricultural extension worker system is a cumbersome and outdated process. Policies must adapt to the realization that cheaper and more effective “bottom up” and user driven approaches will be powerful drivers of food security for the foreseeable future.