In a new guest blogging series, Kate Fehlenberg of CIMMYT-Kenya reflects on successes and challenges in seed ICT and analytics. To introduce the series, Kate pointed to a mobile advisory app for maize developed by her colleagues (Jens Andersson, Jordan Chamberlin, Peter Craufurd) at CIMMYT’s Taking Maize Agronomy to Scale in Africa (TAMASA) project.  See more information about TAMASA’s apps here.

This post discusses how ICT can bridge formal, informal, and emergency seed sectors.

In a world filled with cell phones, social media and YouTube, it’s hard to imagine any area of life not saturated with digital information and communications technology (ICT). Yet, the Agriculture sector seems to have lagged far behind others like Health and Education in terms of digital penetration.

As the development industry labors to get better agricultural products and information to the world’s smallholder farmers, the limited use of widespread ICT mechanisms is striking. While hundreds of quality apps and websites have been developed, few of these have been harmonized, and even fewer integrated into local level systems like national extension services, farmers groups and field days. Most don’t go far beyond the experts who developed them.

As we strive to modernize the agriculture sector in developing economies, ICT can be a natural and powerful ally, if wielded effectively. With potential to get more, and more accurate, information to—and from—farmers and other stakeholders almost instantly; accelerate new products to market by expediting trade and licensing processes, and aggregate and avail demand and supply data across value chains, there is huge untapped potential here. Similarly, ICT can form a strong bridge across formal, informal and emergency seed sectors, whose divisions are not only artificial on many levels, but who can benefit greatly by sharing forecasting, sourcing and distribution protocols, all enabled via data analysis and ICT tools. Affordable smartphones can also turn millions of remote farmers into real-time primary data sources. GeoPoll and Esoko are two global ICT providers that have piloted direct primary surveys of thousands of farmers on seed adoption, sales points, insurance, etc. Similarly, CIMMYT’s DTMASS project experimented with sending timed agronomic advice in local languages on maize farming.

But there are also lessons. As with any analytical effort, we must watch for the ‘garbage in, garbage out’ trap of crowd sourcing and social media platforms: misinformation can travel just as quickly as solid evidence, so monitoring content and triangulating is key. Privacy, data accuracy and cost to farmers in terms of time must be considered. And while the proliferation of apps and websites cannot (should not?) be stopped, there is also a great need to stop reinventing the wheel. The trend of 1,000 apps for 1,000 users is not sustainable. Data needs to be able to be aggregated, validated and shared quickly, widely, and transparently, but this will require inter-operability as well as security.