Like a hoe or a tractor, digital tools in agriculture can provide opportunities for farmers. But as any farmer knows, some tools are better than others.
Digital tools can help farmers monitor field conditions in real time, understand soil quality, plan their plantings and connect directly with consumers. Digital tools can also be expensive and out of reach for small farmers. Data ownership and privacy are big concerns. Will the big data that underpins digitalization lead to even greater corporate control over agriculture?
From the perspective of ETC Group’s Veronica Villas Arias, shared during an Agroecology Fund webinar, “when new technologies are introduced into societies already facing injustice and inequality, they only expand and increase these injustices and inequalities.
Grassroots agroecological movements, recognizing that digitalization can facilitate learning and is here to stay, are asking how can we use digitalization to strengthen farmers’ understanding of the ecosystems they work in, their connections to other farmers, their relationships with consumers, and even their relationships with consumers. their ability to access indigenous seeds? Perhaps most fundamental to a truly sustainable food system grounded in agroecology, they ask: How can we use these tools to ensure equity and sustainability?
While many concerns about digitalization persist, grassroots organizations are developing digital tools to help their members and grow agroecology around the world. Ironically – and unfairly – because agroecology proudly grew out of indigenous people’s food systems, it is sometimes described as anachronistic and anti-technological. Agroecology, however, is rooted in adaptive learning and technologies. It is deeply scientific and its effectiveness has been proven by researchers in dozens of peer-reviewed studies.
A new technology, CropFit, developed by the Thalavady Farmers Foundation in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, connects buyers and sellers in India, in eight different languages.
Kannaiyan Subranamian, co-founder of the Thalavady Farmers Foundation, created this tool during the COVID-19 pandemic, when lockdowns prevented people from moving freely between villages to sell their crops. Subranamian himself had three acres of cabbages to sell but could not travel to find a market.
A first step was to talk with other farmers to find out what features and functionality they might want in such an app.
“It was very difficult work,” says Subranamian, speaking at a recent webinar organized by the Agroecology Fund. “I know how to farm, organize people and fight in different places, including in the World Trade Organization, but I didn’t know how to create software that would work for farmers.”
Subranamian sought support from others outside of agricultural movements, found a technology provider he could trust, and produced a very useful tool.
CropFit “brought a revolution among farmers and buyers,” he says. It helped farming communities know who is growing what and where, allowing them to purchase seeds from neighboring producers.
The farmers group plans to further develop its app, for example by adding livestock and chickens, a crop advisory function and real-time market information. It also plans to expand the tool’s use in Tamil Nadu and India, and eventually worldwide, Subranamian said.
Schola Campesina & Partners in Eastern Europe and Central Asia has developed a mobile application called BILIM (meaning knowledge in Central Asian languages) to facilitate the exchange of learning on agroecology in more than 10 different countries.
The region has a rich history of practicing agroecology, said Maria Anisimova, co-founder of Schola Campesina, which works to promote knowledge sharing among farmers, particularly among women and youth.
Developing the app was a challenge due to the large number of different languages in the region, which spans the Balkans, Central Asia, Syria and Turkey.
The group held remote and live user-centered design workshops to develop the tool.
BILIM allows users to choose and receive all content in their native language. Users can post a topic, create a discussion or group, or send a private discussion.
Çiğdem Artık, head of the Çiftçi-Sen farmers’ union in Turkey, says Turkish farmers value exchanges with farmers in countries like Pakistan, Tajikistan or the Balkans. “Typically we don’t hear their voices and it’s a benefit for us to hear their experience and knowledge.”
And the Seed Savers Network, a local network of community organizations and cooperatives representing 74,000 Kenyan farmers, developed the Seed Exchangers app to help remote farmers access native fruit tree seedlings, such as dragon fruit, passion fruit or medlar.
Native fruit trees are at risk of disappearing in Kenya due to a shift in market demand towards more exotic trees. Wambui Wakahiu, program manager at the Seed Savers Network, warns that this threatens biodiversity, food security and the ability of farmers to adapt to climate change, as native varieties are more climate resilient.
Farmers want to incorporate indigenous varieties into their farms, she said, but they face many challenges accessing the plants.
Nursery operators and farmers in the seedling business find it difficult to access central markets where they can reach buyers, so they set up nurseries along roads where passers-by can find them. However, Kenyan authorities will not certify these roadside nurseries or recognize them as legal businesses.
The Seed Savers Network developed its mobile app to address these issues. The app provides buyers with information on how to care for plants and access extension services.
“We are empowering small farmers and small nurseries. We improve agricultural diversity, contribute to tree cover and help adapt to climate change,” Wakahiu said. The group is also working to make it easier for nurserymen growing native trees to become certified.
While these initiatives are inspiring, there are also obstacles. Many farmers in remote areas have poor or no internet connection. Ironically, the webinar in which these organizations shared their experiences faced its own connectivity challenges!
Farmers often have older phones that are incompatible with apps. Older farmers, in particular, struggle to become digitally savvy; the average age of farmers worldwide is 57. Agroecology groups are addressing these challenges with training programs. Some, like AlterMundi in Argentina, are tackling the connectivity problem through community-based Internet development projects in remote areas.
Still, some groups are hesitant to embrace digital tools, highlighting concerns about the technology’s reliance on conflict minerals, companies using farmers’ data to sell them increasingly expensive and addictive inputs, and fear general that technological solutions mask deeper inequalities.
“Hunger will not be solved by data. Digitalization will also not solve structural problems of poverty and injustice,” says Arias.
This is certainly true. But what if new digital tools were designed with agroecology principles integrated into their operating systems? Agroecology is based on practices of applied learning and collaborative co-creation. And as these groups demonstrate, when digital tools are controlled by farmers and consumers, they may be able to facilitate both and ensure that digitalization benefits those who technology often leaves behind.
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Photo courtesy of Diego Moreira, Wikimedia Commons