Project to examine digital agriculture from many angles

A new effort in the Department of Global Development is exploring barriers to the widespread adoption of digital agriculture tools, which are reshaping agriculture and food supply chains but can be difficult for women and smallholder farmers in developing countries to access.

The project – led by Jaron Porciello, associate director of research data engagement, and funded through a $349,000 award from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation – will study inclusive digital services for farmers, and the potential benefits for productivity and income gains for smallholder producers.

Porciello and researchers from the Cornell Initiative for Digital Agriculture will examine the evidence from a lens spanning physical science and social science expertise.

The eight-month study aims to establish a base of evidence of digital services, intervention areas and key outcomes for farmers. Using a machine-learning model developed by Porciello and piloted as part of global research efforts aimed at the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 2 to end hunger, the team will map, describe and synthesize existing literature to assess the extent to which digital agriculture improves access to, and adoption of, increasingly necessary information and services.

Marginalized communities face barriers due to socioeconomic, geographic or gender-based constraints. For example, women in those communities are less likely than men to own a cellphone and to make use of digital resources. Understanding these impacts will provide insights into how and when farmers access financial, agricultural and market-related information, products and services.

“There’s a real appetite for donors and scholars to have more information about the role of services for farmers in the digital age, and to have all of the information aggregated and analyzed in one place,” Porciello said.

Through the review of published literature and expert interviews, the study will also identify how performance and impact of digital agricultural tools are measured, and subsequently develop recommendations on priority research areas. These recommendations are expected to inform a research and learning agenda for the Gates Foundation, USAID and other donors.

“Digital agriculture has tantalizing potential to uplift the lives of hundreds of millions of farmers all over the world, but only if smallholder farmers get timely, affordable and customized access to both the hardware and software that powers these technologies,” said Ed Mabaya, senior research associate in global development, who launched the flagship digital agriculture program at the African Development Bank in 2019. “This study will provide a crucial understanding of the gaps faced by farmers who too often have been bypassed by agricultural innovation.”

Kelly Merchan is a communications specialist in the Department of Global Development.

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