Organised by: GSMA

Mobile technology is receiving significant attention in the development sector. In the agricultural sector, it is been regarded as an important and efficient new channel for agricultural extension services. There is no doubt that the potential for mobile technology in agriculture is huge and yet to be fully utilised. In addition, despite the increasing hype about the potential of mobile technology in the agricultural space, key concerns regarding reach, effectiveness, efficiency and sustainability are yet to be fully addressed. These issues are significant for effective harnessing of mobile technology for agricultural development. This panel session is designed to initiate discussions around these issues.

The panel session will therefore focus on specific sub topics to be addressed by experts with experience in the field of mobile technology and agriculture. The sub topics include: the state of mobile technology application in Agriculture - who is doing what; Who is winning – the farmers, the app developers, the donors, the value added service VAS), providers, Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) and; Scaling up and Sustainability of mobile agriculture initiatives - examples from successful pilots and financially sustainable models. Organisations such as GSMA, CAB International, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, USAID and AGRA will provide practical experiences in support of the session.

Nov 5, 10:30 - 12:30
Room: Kivu
Stream: Plenary sessions

Sessions Moderator

Moderator of the session is Patricia Amira
Director, Mandala Ltd

Director and pan-African talk show host of 'The Patricia Show'. My role involves content ideas, scripting, editorial, creating strategic partnerships, production team management, creative input towards look, feel and character of the show as well as being host.

View profile


Why the hype?

Agriculture remains a major economic activity for many developing countries. In some countries in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean, agriculture contributes up to 30 – 65% of the national Gross Domestic Product (GDP). However, it remains mainly a subsistence undertaking in many developing countries with thousands of farmers holding between 0.5 to 2 acres. This high number of smallholders scattered geographically with small farm sizes makes provision of adequate and quality extension support rather complex and expensive. This is further compounded by the dwindling national resources (human and financial) for agricultural extension. Simply put - many farmers have never and will never receive adequate technical support to support their agricultural activities.

Current farmer-extension worker ratios mostly in developing countries are high and alarming. In countries such as India, it is documented that on average 6.8% of farmers receive extension support. In Africa, the farmer-extension worker ratio is estimated at 4000:1, compared with 200 hundred farmers to one extension worker in developed countries (Scidev, 2013). This has significant impact on farm productivity, farm household incomes and ultimately, livelihoods. Many countries and their development partners are actively seeking financially sustainable ways to reach farmers and to improve agricultural productivity either by reducing the ratios or by finding new ways to maximize available resources.

cellphonesThe recent proliferation of mobile telephony, particularly in developing countries, is creating new opportunities for overcoming the farmer extension-worker ratio conundrum. Evidence is emerging that carefully considered application of Mobile technology in agriculture can effectively support the delivery of timely and relevant agricultural information and advisory services to farmers.

The overall objective for the application of mobile technology in agriculture remains access to relevant and timely information and advisory for farmers. However, mobile technology could be introduced or initiated to

1) augment and improve existing extension systems and resources or;
2) as a parallel, competitive and private agricultural information and advisory service to provide options for farmers. The type 2 system of mobile agricultural systems is the most common with examples in countries such as Tanzania, Kenya, Mali and India.

Mobile technology has the potential to be employed to support almost all aspects of the agricultural supply chain including the delivery of extension and advisory information, output and input supply management, supply (input and out) management, transactions (input, output and financial, insurance etc.), market creation (agricultural trading platforms) and logistics management.  Currently efforts in the sector are skewed in favour of agronomic information and advisory delivery with other receiving little or no attention.

The question is what are the reasons for the low investment and application of mobile technology in other parts of the agricultural supply chain? The factors have to be critically examined and strategies put in place to increase investment and application of mobile technology in all parts of the supply chain.

It is significant to state that constraints in agriculture and food supply chain are not limited to effective production. Only when there is effective focus and application of mobile technology across the entire agricultural supply chain will it deliver holistic and greater benefits for farmers in the developing world.

Organization : GSMA

The GSMA represents the interests of mobile operators worldwide. Spanning more than 220 countries, the GSMA unites nearly 800 of the world's mobile operators with more than 230 companies in the broader mobile ecosystem, including handset makers, software companies, equipment providers and Internet companies, as well as organisations in industry sectors such as financial services, healthcare, media, transport and utilities. The GSMA also produces industry-leading events such as the Mobile World Congress and Mobile Asia Expo.

Scaling Mobile for Development





Paul Kukubo

CEO at East Africa Exchange


Michael Nkonu

Agriculture Programme Specialist for the mAgri Programme, GSMA

Scaling up and sustainability

In my role as USAID’s ICT Advisor for Agriculture, I learn about 100s of ICT-enabled applications for agriculture.  Governments, mobile network operators, donor funded projects and private businesses are all experimenting with ways to use ICT to increase agriculture productivity and incomes. Many of these efforts hold promise – especially ones tapping basic mobile phones, low cost video, radio and geographic positions systems. Unfortunately, far too few of these applications are sustainable without on-going donor funding or have scaled to the millions of poor smallholder farmers that could benefit. Even “successful” implementations usually reach only 10,000s of farmers.  Some of course deserve on-going public funding given the public good they provide, but governments are often strapped for funds.

If scaled well, ICT-enabled services can and should play a critical role in countries’ increasing efforts to scale proven non-ICT related agriculture technologies (e.g., new seed varieties; cropping techniques; and post-harvest tools).  (Among complementary efforts, the G8 New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition is setting ambitious improved yield targets by country -- consistent with each country’s own agriculture strategy -- based on the scaling of such agriculture technologies.  The New Alliance includes an ICT Extension Challenge Fund to tap ICT-enabled services to help meet the yield targets.) 

Based on my experience providing technical assistance I provide to USAID’s agriculture development teams both within USAID and in USAID’s projects; my role in the design and oversight of two related public-private partnerships (the mFarmer Initiative with GSMA and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Connected Farmer Alliance with Vodafone); and my 25 years in private business prior to USAID, I will provide insights with concrete examples of:

  • Ways to design ICT-enabled agriculture services to increase the likelihood of sustainability and scaling.
  • Alternative organizational and business models for scaling.
  • What works and what doesn’t regarding service roll-out and operations.

Organization : USAID

The United States has a long history of extending a helping hand to people overseas struggling to make a better life. It is a history that both reflects the American people's compassion and support of human dignity as well as advances U.S. foreign policy interests.




Judith Payne

e-Business Advisor, United State Agency for International Development (USAID)

Strategies for increasing access to both tech-nology and meaningful content

Providing just-in-time information that is both highly relevant and actionable is key to making mobile agro-advisory services valuable to farmers and therefore drive adoption. This means creating content that is highly localized, aligned with regional agricultural calendars and markets and presenting it in appropriate languages.

The growth of mobile in developing countries, and rural regions in particular, presents an opportunity to deliver effective, accessible information-based agricultural services directly to rural smallholder farmers, contributing to an increase in their productivity and improvement to their livelihoods.

Across the developing world, around 40% of people now actively subscribe to mobile services, with 130 million new subscribers every year, and mobile (2G) coverage is around 95% by population1. However, urban subscribers still outnumber rural subscribers across the developing world, by almost double in some cases1.

Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) are looking to rural regions to grow their subscriber bases. In India, for example, urban areas are reaching saturation point in terms of subscribers, so operators and service providers are beginning to develop specific strategies to address this market. This move is supported by government policy, with targets to reach 60% rural tele-density by 2017 and 100% by 2020.

There are still challenges to overcome for operators and service providers expanding into rural areas: poor grid availability, battery life in the absence of a reliable electricity supply, difficult terrain, access limitations, fragmented markets, no single language for communication and literacy levels. However, the increased rural access to mobile networks provides a platform for expansion of agro-advisory services, however these services must demonstrate meaningful subscriber numbers and regular usage to appeal to MNOs business priorities, whilst delivering meaningful content and demand-driven services for farmers to see real benefit. 

Content needs to be objective, trustworthy, and developed by experts, taking into account national and regional agriculture policies and linking with existing field based extension services. It needs to be localised, to take account of regional agro-ecological conditions, gender-sensitive and simple but giving farmers the opportunity to follow up with questions.

The content delivery mechanism itself needs consideration, with options to communicate via text, voice message or through helplines. Choice of delivery method will depend on literacy rates, complexity of information being communicated and user preference. Making an initial assessment of farmer needs is critical. On-going validation of content and messages via farmer groups should be an important part of the operational process. Farmer profiles can be gathered and used to customise message delivery (e.g. farm size, crop types, location, inputs, seeds, irrigation). Timing of information delivery should be aligned with cropping cycles and calendars and the ability to respond to time-critical incidents (e.g. pest outbreak, flood) should be built in. Mobile market-places should offer farmers input supplies competing on price, to give purchasing power back to the farmer, helping to squeeze costs out of the supply chain.

Only if all of the above factors are taken into consideration, will a mobile agro-advisory service add value to farmers – something that is critical to the sustainability of any service.

Organization : CABI

CABI has scientific researchpublishing and international development at its core.

We improve people’s lives by solving problems in agriculture and the environment. Together with our members we address issues of global concern, such as food security and climate change.

By generating and increasing access to scientific knowledge, and delivering change through development projects we work to improve crop yields, combat agricultural pests and microbial diseases, protect biodiversity and safeguard the environment, which enables the world’s poorest communities to feed themselves.

CABI is a not-for-profit organization. Uniquely, and unlike other publishers, we use our profits to support rural development projects that go some way to helping the world’s poorest people to grow more, lose less and improve their livelihoods.





Phil Abrahams

Strategic Business Development Director, CAB International (CABI)

Who is winning?

Can the application of information and communications technology (ICT) be a solution to inadequate agricultural extension and advisory services in Africa? Inequity in access to information allows those with information to take advantage of those without it (often farmers), even though much of the information is technically within the public domain.

Because of the ever-lower costs and growing ubiquity of ICT, such as mobile phones and the networks needed to connect them, new avenues have been opened, offering critical information to farmers and agri-businesses communities associated with them. This could, indeed, be a win-win situation for all if the specific need of each stakeholder is considered.

For agriculture, ICT solutions are much needed for improving access to production technologies, remunerative markets, and affordable financing in an inclusive manner. Many stakeholders, in both public and the private sector, are increasingly exploring the potential of ICT applications in addressing these constraints that are holding back the transformation of smallholder agriculture in Africa.

While it should not be seen as a magic bullet for all the problems, the potential of ICT application on smallholder agriculture in Africa, and particularly for farmers now marginally linked to the national economy, would probably be enhanced if five interlinked interventions are considered:

  1. The extension messaging must be demand-driven. This means it must start with a good understanding of farmers needs, and thus avoid pitfalls in many extension programs that often have farmers as passive receivers of didactic instruction.
  2. Farmers be provided an opportunity to participate in the development of the message while local social networks are tapped to connect farmers with experts for appropriate learning methods. The farmer should be seen as both extension client and extension provider. Involving them is also essential for building their trust and for bringing their own experiences on board.
  3. The extension messages should, to the extent possible, be vetted by agricultural experts in their respective fields. This requires coordinating communication between organizations developing and delivering ICT-based extension products in a given region.
  4. Feedback mechanisms that continuously monitor and evaluate progress being made should be included in the design and implementation process.
  5. ICT-based agricultural service providers should establish mechanisms to network and share best practices that address well needs of target farmers (especially women and the youth) and agribusinesses associated with them.

These interventions and many more can be informed well by the many ICT applications for agriculture that are now used in many countries. A good one is that of the Digital Green work in India that uses videos made at the village level in participatory manner with farmers and the frontline agricultural extension staff.

Finally, policy incentives will also be essential for growing the ICT solutions in a sustainable manner. This would require advocating for universal access policies and supportive telecommunications regulatory environments that break the digital divide between urban and rural communities. This is essential for meeting the high expectations of ICT applications to address the current challenges with agricultural extension.

Organization : Alliance for Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA)

AGRA works to achieve a food secure and prosperous Africa through the promotion of rapid, sustainable agricultural growth based on smallholder farmers. Smallholders the majority women produce most of Africa's food, and do so with minimal resources and little government support. AGRA aims to ensure that smallholders have what they need to succeed: good seeds and healthy soils; access to markets, information, financing, storage and transport; and policies that provide them with comprehensive support. Through developing Africa's high-potential breadbasket areas, while also boosting farm productivity across more challenging environments, AGRA works to transform smallholder agriculture into a highly productive, efficient, sustainable and competitive system, while also protecting the environment.





Bashir Jama

Programme Director, Alliance for Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA)

Access, infrastructure, network, penetration

In 2001, global cell phones users surpassed land line users; in the case of many African countries, cell phones enabled the poor to bypass poor infrastructure – ‘leap frogging’ into the digital era. Today, with over seven billion mobile subscriptions in use worldwide, around three-quarters of the world’s inhabitants now have access to a mobile phone. Mobiles are arguably the most ubiquitous modern digital technology. Mobile communications now offer major opportunities to advance human development from providing basic access to agricultural extension and market information to making cash payments and stimulating citizen involvement in democratic processes. We draw on recent country landscaping to illustrate the use mobile phones to illustrate the nexus between agriculture development and financial services as well as explore the challenges and behavior changes required for the sustained adoption of digital technology and services to improve farm productivity, reduce risks, increase farmers’ incomes and access to credit and saving facilities. Specifically we will draw on country studies in Brazil and China to learn how ICT has been used to support productivity increases by smallholder farmers and the evolution these platforms to better serve the needs of smallholder farmers.

Mobile phones, interactive radio and internet can enable farmers to access location-specific and timely recommendations that are actionable. However, content to populate these recommendations is often poor due to limited access to field trial data, geospatial resources such as soil maps and limited meta-data to support the broader use of research outputs and their translation into a local context to supply actionable recommendations. Mobile technologies in particular are a vehicle to not only integrate improved varieties, agronomy and policies to support food systems, but also as the mechanism to integrate other key services such as credit, education and health and a mechanism for crowd-sourcing and monitoring to ensure the products and services being offered are aligned to the needs of rural families. Digitally-enabled technologies can drive transparency that in turn supports accountability and ultimately leads to good governance – an essential ingredient for development.

Both Brazil and China have invested in ICT platforms to support modern extension. These platforms bring together a range of location-specific resources such as weather forecasts, market prices, soil types and alters to support smallholder farmers in optimizing production and managing risks. While a variety of models and platforms exist in China, the most flexible was that of China Mobile that operates a national call center that farmers access through a well-publicized help line that caters to regional needs. The web-based platform is accessible through voice on a simple phone for farmers who have limited language skills all the way through to web browsing on smart phones. The platform has evolved over the past decade with refinements to content and user interfaces based on farmer-feedback. EMBRAPA has developed a comparable platform to deliver best agronomic practices for priority crops. Most platforms we observed have some way to capture farmer feedback on the quality of the recommendations and level of service offered by extension agents. Given the location-specific and knowledge intensive nature of crop manage practices, governments need to embrace the era of digitally-enabled exchange of information and learning to accelerate the pace of development, democratize information, and empower farmers, consumers and investors to make informed choices regarding food production, nutrition and sustainable development. Stronger public-private partnerships will be required to realize the full potential of ICT for development that will include telecom providers, software developers, commercial satellite imagery, and a long list of private sector partners along commodity value chains.

Organization : Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF)


We seek to unlock the possibility inside every individual. We see equal value in all lives. And so we are dedicated to improving the quality of life for individuals around the world. From the education of students in Chicago, to the health of a young mother in Nigeria, we are catalysts of human promise everywhere.




David Bergvinson

Deputy Director, Digital Design for Agriculture, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation