Applying Technology and Digital Solutions
A resounding message at this year’s learning event was the need to keep things simple and not try to address all problems simultaneously. Instead, simple technologies and solutions are often best to improve the lives of the rural poor, especially smallholders. Below are some of the related lessons.
Lesson 1: User-centered design is key to transitioning from in-person to remote instruction. Through user-centered curriculum design, practitioners have developed solutions using technology to overcome distance and connectivity barriers, and bring participatory learning to clients, even those without significant experience with information technology. Benefits of remote learning techniques include increased effectiveness, with clients learning at their own speed, as well as improved efficiency, because of time saved by not having to travel from site to site, allowing staff to reach more clients.
Lesson 2: Developing technological solutions at the nexus of energy-water-agriculture requires a clear understanding of user-focused design principles and local ecosystems. Technology solutions that are designed with end users in mind have shown potential for addressing climate change, population growth, and food insecurity. These solutions also require understanding the interrelated components of local market systems, such as product awareness, affordability, availability, demand, and funding in order to develop the right business models to take solutions to scale.
Lesson 3: Digital agricultural tools can help smallholder farmers and agribusinesses overcome systemic shocks and become more resilient. COVID-19 highlighted food system vulnerabilities in developing countries, which impact farmers at every stage of the agricultural cycle. Digital solutions (such as financial, advisory, procurement, and sales tools) can promote resilience by working closely with telecom and ag-tech communities to develop business models with the potential to create long-term sustainable positive impacts on food systems and to benefit smallholder farmers.
Lesson 4: Avoid the “hype curve” by designing digital solutions around the user to promote value add and impact in support of food, water, and energy systems growth. The spread of mobile technology offers unprecedented opportunities for increasing access to information at scale and very low cost. However, ensuring the effectiveness, suitability, and scalability of information and communication solutions requires listening to clients to understand their needs and willingness and capacity to pay.
Lesson 5: Farmers are more willing to pay when they receive multiple complementary digital services. Digital information sharing and data collection platforms can efficiently distribute climate information, agricultural advice, access to insurance and finance, and commercial opportunities for farmers. Incorporating user experience through product validation and willingness to pay analysis are critical for establishing a sustainable business model.
Lesson 6: Machine learning and artificial intelligence can be used to predict negative impacts of shocks and stressors and identify appropriate responses to support resilience. In Malawi, for example, CRS used machine learning to identify the characteristics that make households and communities more resilient, such as proximity of agricultural fields to flood plains, gender of head of household, etc.
Leveraging Private Sector and Multi-Stakeholder Investment
There is a growing consensus that food, water, and energy are commodities with commercial value, but they are also public goods. Public and private sector stakeholders can partner with each other and with civil society to ensure that food, water, and energy systems are highly functional and serve the masses, including the rural poor, by applying the following lessons.
Lesson 7: Private sector actors are naturally incentivized to invest in food systems to support improved access to agricultural products that meet their quality and quantity requirements. IESC offered examples of how they used market information and technical assistance to entice agribusinesses to invest in upgrading, helping them benefit more from market opportunities related to horticultural exports in the Dominican Republic (DR) and underserved dairy markets in Sri Lanka.
Lesson 8: The public sector can use Pay-for-Results approaches, such as prize competitions, to incentivize the private sector to invest in sustainable and inclusive food, water, and energy systems. In Vietnam, for example, AgResults used prize competitions to incentivize the private sector to train farmers on climate-smart rice farming technologies and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Lesson 9: Blended finance mechanisms can be used to ensure food, water, and energy systems are resilient in times of crisis. United States Agency for International Development’s (USAID) Water and Energy for Food (WE4F) initiative is supporting blended finance approaches that serve innovations at the food, water, and energy nexus. Connexus’ Access to Finance team on USAID/Tunisia Jobs, Opportunities and Business Success (JOBS) demonstrated how they used blended finance to support resilience of
enterprises negatively impacted by COVID-19, encouraging local financial institutions to expand lending when most were contracting.
Lesson 10: Policies that support urban agriculture can strengthen food, water, and energy systems. Sahel Consulting and Nourishing Africa highlighted how urban development policies and architectural plans can support the expansion of edible green spaces, including rooftop gardens with water-efficient irrigation systems and renewable energies, such as solar power and hydroponics.
Lesson 11: Multi-stakeholder partnerships can be designed to be market-led, while supporting smallholders and women. Working with the Global Dairy Platform, Land O’Lakes Venture 37 and Bain & Company designed and pilot tested a public-private partnership called Dairy Nourishes Africa (DNA) that is serving a large number of smallholder dairy farmers in Tanzania, with plans to replicate in neighboring countries. To empower women and girls in cocoa growing communities of West Africa, Cargill
has invested approximately $11M over the past decade in its partnership with CARE, addressing important community issues, such as child labor, water, sanitation, and hygiene.
Ensuring Inclusion of Women, Youth, and the Rural Poor
Resilient (anti-fragile) market systems are characterized by broad diversity and inclusivity in the kinds of people and businesses that operate within them. The creativity that is foundational to innovation depends largely on accessing a broad diversity of perspectives and approaches. However, ensuring that market actors, including finance institutions, governments, and lead businesses, engage a diverse range of people, including women, youth, and others is not always easy or straightforward. This section discusses projects and initiatives that are creating new tools and approaches to successfully address the significant barriers faced by women, youth, and other marginalized people to allow for more equitable participation in value chains and other market systems.
Lesson 12: Increasing women’s participation in commercial food systems is a powerful way to enhance the delivery of nutritious food and increase household incomes. National Cooperative Business Association Cooperative League of the United States (NCBA CLUSA) and Helen Keller International (HKI) presented strong evidence that lowering barriers to women’s participation in the commercial food system is leading to increased income and improved household nutrition within families of participating
Lesson 13: Innovative public-private partnerships between donor agencies and multi-national firms can help companies create more inclusive global supply chains to engage and positively impact more women, youth, and persons with disabilities. PepsiCo and Resonance International demonstrated their systematic framework and specially designed tools to improve the roles of women, youth, and people with disabilities in their supply chains. They showed how this approach is not only improving the well-being for PepsiCo-affiliated farmers, but is also helping PepsiCo secure supplies of produce for its production operations around the world.
Lesson 14: Getting more smallholders involved in commercial agriculture is a joint effort among private sector firms, donor agencies and government actors, each with a role to play in improving the dynamism and anti-fragility of local and regional markets. Connexus’s Feed the Future Nafoore Warsaaji Senegal team showed how using horticulture hubs bring together the private sector, government agencies and producer organizations in private sector engagements to improve smallholder participation in commercial horticulture and create anti-fragility in horticultural value chains.
Lesson 15: Effective Last Mile strategies are a powerful way to lower barriers so that more smallholders can participate in commercial horticulture. CRS presented data from their programs showing that private agricultural service providers have increased rural smallholder access to quality inputs and services and have provided unique opportunities to engage women and youth in commercial agricultural support services.
Lesson 16: Persuading market system actors to invest in youth requires a clear value proposition and strong business case. International Youth Foundation and Genesis Analytics illustrated the importance of
engaging private firms in a co-created “discovery process” to help them understand and experience the value of youth in providing new skills and innovative perspectives to their business operations.
Lesson 17: Addressing women’s economic empowerment in market systems requires a comprehensive, holistic approach that goes beyond conducting isolated gender activities and works with an array of ecosystem actors to address gender barriers to participation at the household, community, and market levels. TechnoServe, CRS and Tolaro Global showed how they retooled the BeninCaju project’s approach to improving women’s roles in cashew farming, processing, and trade by
making gender activities less stove-piped and more integrated across the value chain, leading to much greater participation of women in commercial cashew production.