There’s a ridiculous amount of hype talked about mobile phones, but they clearly are having a significant impact on poor people everywhere in lots of unexpected ways. Last year I met a group of Ethiopian coffee farmers who had no running water or electricity in their homes, but each family had a phone. When I asked what difference they make, the answer was always the same. You can check in on your relatives, talk to the sick, or sort out a meeting without going in person. By skipping the landline stage and moving straight from having to walk miles to see someone (public or private transport is rare, beyond mules and horses), without any certainty that they will be there when you arrive, to calling them on the mobile, the new communications technology has brought huge time savings.
That’s pretty typical of discussions of mobile phones and development – another uplifting anecdote and not much data. But now Vodaphone have teamed up with Accenture and Oxfam to try and take a more systematic look in order ‘to stimulate the necessary engagement between mobile operators, governments, NGOs and businesses to realise these opportunities and explore others.’ The result is a new report ‘Connected Agriculture: The role of mobile in driving efficiency and sustainability in the food and agriculture value chain’. Here’s some highlights:
“The study concentrates on 12 opportunities for mobile technology, in four key areas highlighted by stakeholders: improving access to financial services, provision of agricultural information, improving data visibility for supply chain efficiency and enhancing access to markets. Where possible, researchers modelled the anticipated total number of mobile connections to each service in 2020 and the associated potential increase in agricultural incomes and reduction in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions…… Each of the 12 opportunities was modelled across 26 countries in Africa, India, Australasia, Europe and the Middle East.
Mobile communications can help to meet the challenge of feeding an estimated 9.2 billion people by 2050. The 12 specific opportunities [see table – keep clicking on it if you want to expand] explored in this study could increase agricultural income by around US$138 billion across 26 of Vodafone’s markets in 2020.
They could also cut carbon dioxide emissions by approximately 5 mega tonnes (Mt) in these markets and reduce freshwater withdrawals for agricultural irrigation by 6%, with significant savings in water-stressed regions. These benefits assume there will be around 549 million mobile connections to relevant services in 2020.
Mobiles can help farmers improve agricultural productivity by giving them access to basic financial services, new agricultural techniques and new markets, in turn helping them to secure better prices for crops and a better return on investments. As their income improves with each harvest, they can invest in better seeds, fertiliser and chemicals.
The greatest potential for improving farmers’ income comes from access to financial payments and agricultural information via mobile, together delivering approximately 75% of the total increase in agricultural income from the opportunities studied.”
I have to admit that from what I could read in the report, I wasn’t convinced by the big numbers. They reckon the $51bn from improved access to financial services would come from an additional 240 million connections – that’s over $200 per mobile per year, which seems an awful lot for a typical small farmer (and the report claims to focus on smallholders). The methodology annex is pretty sketchy but says ‘the increase in agricultural income was based on the potential uplift in average value added per agricultural worker. The potential uplift factor was based on empirical field studies where available, rather than attempting to model the complex individual drivers responsible for increasing smallholder income.’ What it doesn’t say is the extent or whereabouts of those field studies.
But in any case, on the basis of my own (ahem) in depth research in Ethiopia (i.e. the conversations described in the first para), I’m not sure dollars and cents are the best metric for measuring the human impact of mobiles. Has anyone seen or done any research on the broader (and perhaps more important) impact on the time/care economy?
In her foreword to the report, my boss Barbara Stocking distances Oxfam from the number crunching (we had our doubts about that bit), welcomes the focus on mobile financial services, on moving this discussion away from corporate philanthropy and into discussions of core business models and applying these to smallholders, and urges the phone companies and others to go further in three areas:
• How mobile technology could improve the efficiency of government safety net systems that assist the poorest and most food insecure small farmers – rather than looking only at the role that mobile technology can play in increasing farmer productivity and income from agriculture
• How companies such as Vodafone can better understand, document and address barriers to the use of mobile technology affecting women. Getting new technology owned and used by women often carries significant challenges, for example overcoming illiteracy and cultural norms which mean that men tend to be the early owners and beneficiaries of new technologies
• How mobile technology could drive new agricultural practices rather than simply greater efficiency in current practices, particularly around climate change adaptation, and ensuring focus is given to a full range of opportunities around climate change adaptation.
To which I would add the bit about the time economy.