If there is one positive takeaway from the COVID-19 pandemic, it is that even in isolation, the world is connected in many more ways than previously appreciated, writes Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Co-operation (CTA) Director Dr Ibrahim Khadar.
Amidst global lockdowns over the past month, governments, businesses and communities have nevertheless united to tackle the outbreak, from donating personal protective equipment to forming coalitions of rivals to manufacture new breathing aids.
The same approach can and should be applied to positive transformation across all sectors of global development, including those essential to meeting the most basic of human needs: farming.
While new technologies, research and development are undoubtedly major drivers of progress, the realization of their potential to help feed the world relies squarely and uniquely on the human factor.
Within African agriculture, for example, more than 400 digital services and tools are currently available for smallholder farmers, all of which provide better access to information, networks, products and markets. Yet only around two in five farmers registered for these solutions actually use them with any frequency.
Such applications may be a vital piece of the food security puzzle but they are only effective when there is someone there at each step to convince farmers of the benefits, deliver the necessary training and then troubleshoot any problems.
For the more than 250 million smallholders in developing countries across Africa, the Caribbean and Pacific, who rely on agriculture to feed their families and earn an income, such in-person outreach helps them build the skills and capacity needed to generate economic growth – or “human capital”.
This support comes in a variety of different guises and over the past three decades, CTA has equipped and fostered many development actors, both individually and as a connected support network for smallholders.
From training the extension agents who share knowledge person to person, to hosting workshops, we have seen how investing in the abilities of experts and trainers can help smallholders develop their understanding of sustainable agricultural practices and how to implement them.
And over our 35-year history, CTA has shown how print, digital and virtual outreach is most successful when coupled with human delivery, strategic partnerships and a personal touch.
For instance, CTA’s Question and Answer Service was the precursor of online fora, in which farmers could write to experts for scientific and technical advice on issues like crop disease. For 26 years, the service provided individualised support for tens of thousands of farmers, including many not reached by extension services.
Similarly, our now discontinued flagship agriculture magazine, Spore, which had more than 60,000 subscribers at its peak, was available online, but, to ensure those without internet access were not left behind, print versions were often hand delivered by extension agents to the most remote.
Strengthening human capital in this way, then, makes it possible to develop the social capital needed to build local partnerships and regional collaborations, and reinforce food and economic security.
For example, as well as working in the field to develop the human capital of individual women farmers, CTA and partners launched Africa’s first online network for female agricultural entrepreneurs, VALUE4HER, which allows women to connect and share opportunities and knowledge.
And globally, our work to expand climate-smart agriculture in Ethiopia and Mali provided useful lessons and insights for other regions, which we applied in Jamaica and elsewhere in the Caribbean.
A key learning was that developing new agricultural tools and services alone was not sufficient. In Jamaica, fewer than half of farmers actually used the digital solutions for which they registered, and uptake amongst women in particular remained relatively low.
What farmers needed was tailored, step-by-step, in-person guidance on how to download a new weather forecasting app, for example, and then successfully interpret it to take informed decisions about planting and tending crops.
Over the past four decades, digitalization has become both the medium and the means through which smallholder farmers can produce, earn and achieve more through the smarter use of resources.
From rural radio and CD-ROMs that provided guidance and practical tips to the verifiable digital profiles that unlock financial services including credit and insurance, technology has been the catalyst for sustainable smallholder farming.
But time and again, we have seen how it is human support that ensures farmers embrace and adopt them to their full potential.
Technology is and will continue to be a vital tool for improving global food security. But in the same way that the novel coronavirus outbreak has mobilized all sectors and industries in extraordinary ways, global hunger, poverty and inequality should also inspire the human connections and partnerships needed to improve food security.
Digitalization might be the future for agriculture, but positive transformation will continue to depend on humans working together.
This op-ed is solely the opinion of the author and is not endorsed by EU Reporter.