Talk at FAO on the role of mobiles in rural development

Posted on December 7, 2011  /  3 Comments

 ©FAO/GIULIO NAPOLITANO. Editorial use only. All rights reserved. Copyright ©FAOYesterday, I was in an FAO panel at the Global South-South Development Expo 2011, speaking on the role of mobiles in rural development using case studies from Sri Lanka and India. When I mentioned that one should have some concerns about the quality of information and the lack of accountability in the plethora of mobile based agriculture crop advisory services, I was asked a pertinent question by an official from the Ministry of Agriculture in China: Does this mean a greater role for government?

What we think is that the basic information collection (for example market prices) should be collected by government or an agent of government and made available as a public good. The private sector can then be free to process it, add value and disseminate, potentially for a few to ensure sustainability.

But the heart of the problem that we are concerned with is whether a one way transmission of generic crop “advice” to Farmer X will solve his problems or aggravate them. Diagnosis of farmer’s agriculture problems is no different from me going to the doctor to understand why I was having a fever that wouldn’t go away (when this happened earlier this year it turned out it was because of dengue which was only confirmed by a test).  We do not as yet have a well defined solution. But the answer may be a two-track solution. The first can be the standard one way dissemination of generic “low value” generalizable advice. The second is where farmers have to enter various important information (soil quality, past cultivation in the land) that may be needed for a diagnosis. This could help build a database of information that can be utilized to provide much more targeted and per pertinent advice to a farmer in the future. The tricky part is that this is a costly exercise if we depend on the organization will provide the  advice to do the data collection. So an investment in creating incentives and designing user-friendly interfaces for the farmers themselves to provide such information will go a long way in reducing the cost. Some of the required information will be hard for farmers to obtain (e.g. soil quality), but its interesting to note from review of existing applications of ICTs in Thai agriculture by Deunden Nikomborirak of TDRI (a long time collaborator on our research activities)  that relatively lower cost kits do exist.

The presentation slides can be found HERE.


  1. Sriganesh: I saw your presentation. I liked it, but I am not convinced of your argument (also to the question you said was asked by the Chinese delegate) that the answer to your trust problem lies in the Government getting involved. You have no evidence to suggest this. You may be correct that it is perhaps one possibility that can be considered, but certainly not what I believe will be the answer. There are many ways in which trust can be enhanced via financial derivatives that are market tools that has no government involvement. Look at how exchanges work, look at how trust is enhanced by guarantees and warranties for example. I think you are jumping the gun.

  2. Please replace the URL in the tradent slide with following;

    (anyway old URL also works)


  3. Sameera, noted the new URL. Will use that in any future work.

    I agree the private sector has an important role and could in some instance play a better role than government in practice and GGS is an example of that. GGS is now the provider of market price information for Government of Sri Lanka. RML in India uses its own price collectors rather than what is reported by government since that data was found to be less reliable. Both these instances speak to the unreliability of data that is produced by government themselves. However the question of trust and accountability is not addressed. Sometime back in Sri Lanka as you would remember, GGS was accused of providing incorrect information that they claimed was distorting the market. We were able to prove those malicious claims as false, but it does lead to the question of accountability. We take a lot of effort to sample and ensure accuracy of the information that GGS collects, but it still doesn’t capture all the price movements. The “GGS” brand could be said to ender some trust in consumers of their information, but that trust was gained over a long period of time and at some cost. I would also agree with you that warranties and guarantees could address some of the problems, but is there anyone out there who offers these? Currently, no one does because right now the business case for these services is not yet proved. I would argue that a public-private partnership is what is the ideal, hence why I even mention “agent of government”. The government stamp of approval helps to make a viable business case afterwards, because currently all these private providers of market information are technically open to criticism. In the price alerts, Dialog wants the “Price information by GGS” stamp at the bottom because that indemnifies them should there be any problems.

    But the greater problem is not about price information but rather “agricultural know how” GGS doesn’t disseminate this kind of information but solutions in other countries do. That is where there is a real problem, where one way information flows might provide the wrong “advice” to the farmer.