Yesterday, 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.