Research shows that the global growth of information and telecommunication technologies (ICTs) has resulted in significant development opportunities, especially in rural areas. ICTs can improve households’ agricultural production and profitability, increase job opportunities, and encourage the adoption of healthier practices and more effective risk management techniques.
Two recent papers in Agricultural Economics investigate the potential of ICTs to improve global food security and to support agricultural initiatives. The promise (and pitfalls) of ICT for agricultural initiatives reviews the existing evidence on how ICTs can support agricultural development, while ICTs as a tool to improve food security provides an overview of the impact that ICTs (mainly mobile phones) have had on food security in developing countries. Both papers also highlight a number of challenges and constraints to the effective use of ICTs in supporting agricultural development and food security.
ICTs have the potential to significantly aid agricultural development in developing countries (although there remain areas in which research on the impact of ICTs on agricultural development and food security has been inconclusive). The two papers emphasize that ICTs can play an important role in farmers’ ability to access agricultural information and extension services, particularly in remote areas; this increased access can in turn increase agricultural production. For instance, a study referred to in one of the papers found that sugar cane producers in Kenya who received personalized SMS advising them to complete certain tasks on their fields increased their yields, on average, by 11.5 percent.
The studies also cover the role of ICTs in improving farmers’ access to market information, and thus their sales decisions. Both papers refer to a study that shows that farmers in Uganda who received price information via radio managed to increase their crop revenues by up to 55 percent. Both papers also show that ICTs can improve market efficiency; for instance, a study analyzing the introduction of mobile phones among grain traders in Niger finds that the use of mobile phones allow traders to search for price information over larger areas and to sell grains in more markets. The increased ability of traders to buy and sell across markets led to a reduction of 10–16 percent in grain price dispersion, thereby making food more affordable for consumers.
Evidence also suggests that ICTs, particularly mobile phones, can facilitate farmers’ access to financial services. By providing a platform for electronic transfers, mobile phones can dramatically reduce the cost of sending and receiving money relative to traditional mechanisms, an important issue for rural farmers and traders. This reduction in transaction costs and the increased capacity of households to save provides a buffer against external shocks. For instance, a recent study finds that households that used M-Pesa (a mobile banking platform in Kenya) are better able to mitigate negative shocks compared to those that do not use the service.
Following these success stories, however, both papers go on to highlight a number of challenges to the effective use and scaling up of ICT technologies as a tool for improving food security and agricultural development. The challenges covered can broadly be separated into three areas: connectivity, content, and capacity. Regarding connectivity, the papers argue that penetration rates often exaggerate true access to mobile phones and that country aggregates masks differences in the adoption of ICTs within countries. For instance, in Brazil, the share of households that own a mobile phone is 83 percent in urban areas but drops to 53 percent in rural areas.
In terms of content, the information provided through ICTs does not always match farmers’ needs and is not always of high quality. For instance, complicated concepts, such as fertilizer dosage or intercropping methods, cannot be easily conveyed via SMS and is likely to require more personalized methods of dissemination.
Regarding capacity, the papers highlight that the effectiveness of ICTs can be hindered by farmers’ capacity to use new technologies. For example, while SMS can be a quick and cost-effective way of reaching rural areas, low literacy levels can prevent the implementation of large-scale information campaigns in some areas. A 2015 UNESCO report highlighted that in 14 countries, half the adult population is illiterate. This poses a barrier to the use of ICTs to spread useful information.
The papers suggest a number of actions and policies that can help overcome these challenges. Increasing connectivity, especially in the poorest areas, can be supported by policies that ensure competitive telecom markets and that subsidize connectivity to remote areas. Simultaneously, it is important that ICT services are cost-effective and easily accessible to farmers. The evidence presented also highlights the importance of high quality content that is context-specific; in this regard, the design of agricultural extension services needs to carefully identify and validate farmers’ actual information needs prior to implementation. Additionally, one of the papers argues that agricultural information constitutes a public good. With this in mind, governments should invest significant resources in designing policies that ensure that the best possible information regarding prices for different markets, varieties, and produce quality, as well as information regarding production technologies and other agronomic information, is easily available and accessible to all.