Is the problem of assessing quality the most important one? And can ICTs only marginally help?

Posted on August 24, 2011  /  0 Comments

Reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was a rite of passage for college students (should still be). The key point I took away from it was the need to focus on quality. My most favorite economics book is Exit, Voice and Loyalty, by Albert Hirschman. Also a discourse on quality. Perhaps because I read Zen at an impressionable age . . .

Anyway, been preoccupied with quality these days. I have come to believe that quality will become more and more important to users as broadband proliferates and that delivering consistent-quality connectivity will be inherently problematic. Therefore, regulators and policy makers will get dragged in, despite their tool kits being rudimentary in this department.

But that is not really what this post is about. It is a rumination on the role of quality in agriculture. Based on the reports that are coming in from the value chain studies, filtered by several years of discussing ICT applications in agriculture, I am beginning to form a (disturbing) hypothesis.

Our objectives are growth and inclusion. That is, we are specifically focusing on what can be done to bring small holders into value chains, so that there will be more money in their pockets and hope in their hearts.

Fragmentation of land is a key problem. In many cases, the smallholders could not be brought in to lucrative value chains because no one could be sure of the quality of their product and because it was too messy to deal with small quantities. There was the story of Amul, the Indian dairy giant, which cracked the problem by developing a meter to reliably assess the quality of the milk offered for sale by smallholders and thereby was able to let the smallholders be small, yet include them in an efficient international value chain.

In some cases such as castor seeds and pomegranate, it appears that quality can be assessed easily from the outside, without cutting open the fruit. But in others such as mango and pineapple it is not possible to tell about injuries or tastelessness inside from the outside. So however much ICTs we throw at the problem, we will not be able to accurately assess quality. When that is the case, the produce of smallholders will be assumed to be of lower quality and will either not be integrated into value chains or be paid a lower price. Large producers who have more to lose if caught supplying low-quality produce will be favored.

This is disturbing. Is the outgrower or contract farming model the only solution?

That is the hypothesis. More thought needed.

It seems to me that the biggest

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