The opening day

More people own a mobile phone than own a toothbrush, and in Africa the number with access to a mobile phone exceeds the number with access to clean water. Mobile phones and other information and communication technologies (ICTs) have the potential to transform the lives of hundreds of millions of smallholder farmers. This was one of the key messages to come out of the first day of the ICT4Ag conference in Kigali, Rwanda.

During the conference, more than 500 delegates from 63 countries will explore how the communications revolution could transform the agricultural landscape. "I believe this is one of the great opportunities of our times," said Michael Hailu, CTA Director, in his opening speech. "That is why this conference – and your presence – is so important."

He stressed the significance of agriculture for developing countries, particularly in Africa, where 65% of the labour force is involved in food production. Yet productivity remains depressingly low. At present, the continent imports up to US$50 billion worth of food each year. "There is no good reason for this," he said. "Africa is missing a huge opportunity, and I believe that ICTs could play a key role in improving productivity."

Catherinerose Barretto, a social media entrepreneur from Tanzania, emphasised the importance of involving young people. "For too long, youth in Africa has been seen as a problem that needs to be solved," she said. "Instead, we need to look at youth as an asset." She pointed out that some of the most successful mAgri innovations had been set up by people under the age of 30.

She expressed great enthusiasm for the 'hackathon', a regional competition aimed at designing mobile apps for agricultural development. Nine teams of young people were currently in a 'coding frenzy' at KLab, Rwanda's technical hub. The winners of the competition will be announced at conference on Thursday.

It says much about the importance of ICTs in Rwanda that the opening ceremony was attended by five government ministers, as well as the CEO of the Rwanda Development Board and the EU Ambassador.

The Hon Agnes Kalibata of the Ministry of Agriculture and Animal Resources (MINAGRI), co-organisers of the conference, described agriculture as one of the low-hanging fruits for poverty reduction. "ICTs are another low-hanging fruit," she said in her address to delegates. During the last six years, the number of people with access to phones had increased from 5% to 65% in Rwanda. "Yesterday, during Plug and Play Day, we saw the huge potential of ICTs," she said. "But we need to recognise there are certain challenges. How do we engage better with women in agriculture? How do we create more youth employment?"

This question was uppermost in the mind of the Minister of Youth and ICT, the Hon Jean Philbert Nsengimana. "Youth constitute an incredibly valuable asset that needs to be harvested," he said. It was an indication of his government's commitment to young people that responsibility for their affairs had been moved from the social cluster of ministries to the economic cluster. "Young people should be seen as part of the profit sector," he said.

"Rwanda's 'Vision 2020' maps out a development path which will transform the country into a middle-income, knowledge-based economy. That is why digital literacy is so important," suggested the Minister. As an example of a successful agricultural ICT venture he cited the case of Esoko, a platform for tracking and sharing market intelligence used by 2.5 million small-scale farmers.

Ambassador Valentine Sendanyoye of the Rwanda Development Board welcomed the fact that the conference was taking place just a week after the Transform Africa Summit, which set out a vision for how ICTs could stimulate economic development. She quoted Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta, who had told heads of state, ministers and delegates: "ICTs are not a luxury good, but an instrument for transformation."

Not only will ICTs help Rwanda to modernise its agricultural industry; they will enable the country to create a more diverse economy. The aim is to reduce the contribution of agriculture from 35% of GDP to 25%. "To achieve that we need to create 200,000 non-agricultural jobs a year, and that won't happen without ICTs," she said.

Why the Hype for mAgriculture?

This was the theme for the first plenary session. Despite the increasing hype about the potential of mobile technology, there are significant concerns about its reach, effectiveness and efficiency. The plenary consisted of five short presentations on the subject, followed by a lively session of questions and answers.

Michael Nkonu of GSMA began by describing some of the challenges facing smallholder farmers. These include low productivity, lack of technical support, globalisation and climate change. The old systems of intervention had worked ineffectively, and there is an urgent need to find new ways of supporting smallholders. They need better access to assets, knowledge, services and remunerative markets. Most mAgri developments focus on providing information to improve productivity. "We also need to address other issues further up the value chain, such as post harvest losses, which can be as high as 40%, and helping farmers gain access to microfinance," he said.

Philip Abrahams of CAB International (CABI) told delegates that we need to think about the use of ICTs in agriculture from the perspective of both the mobile providers and the farmers who use mAgri services. "As far as the mobile companies are concerned, it comes down to money. They are running a business, not an emotion," he said. As far as farmers are concerned, there are some very specific needs which need to be satisfied. Information must be made swiftly available. It must be relevant to the farmers' location. It must be accessible, which means using voice messages as well as text. Ideally, services should be interactive. In short, services need to be demand driven rather than supplier led.

Judy Payne, e-Business Advisor at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), said there was some good news about the use of ICTs in agriculture. There was also plenty of 'not good news'. Most ICT applications developed for farmers are not sustainable. Few have been scaled up to reach hundreds of thousands or millions of users. Their impact is poorly documented, and most apps are designed by sharp young entrepreneurs without strong business experience. "Despite all this, many receive rewards and are declared success stories," she said. "Rewards may be great for marketing, but I've seen too many, and I take them with a grain of salt."

Judy suggested that those involved in developing applications for agriculture would do well to learn from the experience, both good and bad, of ICTs in the health sector. She also said that there was much to learn from the activities of mobile money providers. We also need to think about honing market segmentation, and satisfying the specific demands of different types of farmer.

David Bergvinson of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation told delegates about a farmer he'd recently met in northern Rwanda. She was an enterprising woman with many different roles in the community, and he asked her how she used her mobile phone. She used it to establish where to sell her produce. She used it to get weather reports and alerts, for example about pests and diseases. And she used it to learn about agricultural practices and innovations.

"MAgri needs to supply a diverse range of information – about markets, weather, soils, seeds, financial services," said David. He stressed that we need to think hard about how to package large amounts of data and information in ways that make them useful to farmers. He approvingly cited the case of China, which has lifted 200 million rural people out of poverty during recent years. It has done this partly by investing in agricultural research. Smallholder farmers are also benefited from the use of ICTs.

The final speaker in the first plenary was Bashir Jama from the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA). He said the biggest challenge for Africa was low productivity, and he listed three things which farmers need: good seeds, healthy soils and good agronomic practices.

Bashir suggested that one of the best ways of getting information to farmers is through field trips and demonstrations: seeing is believing. But these are expensive, so other options are needed as well. Drama, videos and radio have been used to great effect, and mobile phones have a role to play. "It's not a question of either/or," said Bashir. "We need to use a range of different technologies."

He listed five 'game changers'. Messages sent by mobiles should be demand-driven. Farmers must be engaged in the development of messages. The messages need to be vetted by experts. "I am a soil scientist, and I've seen lots of lousy content," he said. There need to be sound feedback mechanisms. And all those involved in designing, delivering and receiving message need to share best practices.

The three streams

During the afternoon, there were two rounds of four parallel sessions. Between them, they focused on the three conference streams:

  • Emerging innovations in ICTs supporting agricultural research and development
  • Capacity strengthening and stakeholder empowerment for improved livelihoods and engagement in agricultural research and development
  • Enabling environments for the agricultural sector to maximise the benefits from ICTs

The opening day concluded with cocktails and a cultural entertainment.