November 16, 2012 - 5:01 pm
By Judy Payne | e-Business Advisor, U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)

WISENET (Women in ICTs Shared Excellence Network) is the International Bureau’s convening platform that aims to leverage the experience, resources and connections of the international ICT community to better the situation of women, their communities and their countries. As part of this work, the FCC has invited prominent women in technology from around the world to post blogs sharing their experiences.

As e-Business Advisor at USAID, I focus on using information and communications technologies (ICT) to make the agency’s economic growth projects more successful. Because agriculture drives the economies of many developing countries, much of this work is being done through the U.S. government’s Feed the Future Initiative.

I'm lucky to be able to get out into the field – literally – and see our agriculture projects and how ICT is or could be used to assist farmers. I’ve seen some high-end applications that seem to be working. For example, Sustainable Harvest uses iPads for coffee cooperatives in Rwanda to capture traceability information. The iPad’s intuitive user interface is much easier to use than a PC keyboard. (More information about the project is available here).

Increasingly, USAID and other organizations are integrating ICT into development projects. Unfortunately, I have seen many examples of using ICT in agriculture development projects that are unsustainable without on-going donor support and that lack a viable business model to reach the hundreds of thousands (even millions) of farmers that could benefit. Because higher-end Internet-based services are especially hard to scale, I focus on lower-end ICTs such as mobile phone based services as well as radio combined with mobile services, GIS (geographic information systems), and digital images.

One such innovative low-end application that was used for a real-time auction for maize –– using only a desktop PC and an overhead projector –– radically changed how business is done.  For the first time, a room full of bidders in a city in sub-Saharan Africa could actually see the bids of their competitors in real-time and decide whether to lower their own bids as the potential buyer watched.

Another low-end application is using low-cost video tutorials to augment traditional agriculture extension services, teaching farmers how to increase their productivity. One approach honed by Digital Green in India emphasizes producing short videos—say, less than 10 minutes—on specific topics, and distributing them via a hub-and-spoke approach that doesn’t require Internet access. (You can check out some sample videos on YouTube.) These training videos, made with inexpensive video recorders and projectors (each about $150) are complemented by in-person and phone-based feedback to track which are most useful. The videos star local farmers or extension workers in the field. Digital Green’s partners have produced over 2,200 videos and reached over 100,000 farmers in India. It is now expanding its approach to its partners in Africa. During a recent trip to Mozambique in January, I traveled cross country from Nampula to Mocuba and on to Quelimane through largely rural areas. Each USAID project team I visited showed strong interest in trying out these low-cost videos.

A third-party evaluation of Digital Green’s project is currently underway that will provide important data for us to assess its impact in detail, but Digital Green reports its approach is significantly more effective in getting farmers to try new practices.

USAID’s FACET Project has developed a practical toolkit for teams wanting to try low-cost approaches to integrating low-cost video into agricultural development projects and is conducting related workshops for USAID teams in Ghana, Kenya, and Mozambique this spring.

In future blog postings, I will highlight promising ICT tools or services that can help further economic development. One of these is the mFarmer Initiative (a partnership between USAID and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and being implemented by GSMA) that provides helpful resources, including a market entry toolkit for potential agriculture value added services providers. Other resources are available on USAID’s ICT for Ag website, as well as through the World Bank and the FAO.

To learn more about women in ICT see: WISENET: the Women in ICTs Shared Excellence Network