Like a hoe or a tractor, digital tools in agriculture may offer farmers opportunities. But as any farmer knows, some tools are better than others.
Digital tools can help farmers monitor field conditions in real time, understand soil quality, plan their planting—and connect directly with consumers. Digital tools can also be costly and out of reach for smaller farmers. Data ownership and privacy are big concerns. Will the big data that underpins digitalization lead to even greater corporate control over agriculture?
From the perspective of Veronica Villas Arias of the ETC Group shared during an Agroecology Fund webinar, “when new technologies are introduced into societies who are already facing injustice and inequality, they’re just going to widen and increase those injustices and inequalities.”
Grassroots agroecology movements—recognizing that digitalization can facilitate learning and is here to stay —are asking, how can we use digitalization to strengthen farmers’ understanding of the ecosystems in which they work, their connections with other farmers, their relationships with consumers, and even their ability to access native seeds? Perhaps most fundamental to a truly sustainable food system grounded in agroecology, they’re asking, how do we use these tools to ensure equity and sustainability?
While many concerns with digitization persist, grassroots organizations are developing digital tools to help their members and scale agroecology worldwide. Ironically—and unfairly—because agroecology is proudly born from Indigenous Peoples food systems, it is sometimes painted as anachronistic and anti-technology. Agroecology, however, is rooted in adaptive learning and technologies. It is deeply scientific, and its efficacy has been proven by researchers in dozens of peer-reviewed studies.
One new technology, CropFit, developed by Thalavady Farmers Foundation in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, India connects buyers and sellers in India, in eight different languages.
Thalavady Farmers Foundation Co-founder Kannaiyan Subranamian created the tool during the COVID-19 pandemic when lockdowns prevented people from moving freely between villages to sell their crops. Subranamian himself had three acres of cabbages to sell but was unable to travel to find a market.
A first step was to talk with other farmers to find out what features and functionality they might want in such an app.
“It was a very difficult job,” says Subranamian, speaking on a recent webinar organized by the Agroecology Fund. “I know how to do farming, organizing people and fighting in different places including in the World Trade Organization, but I did not know how to make a software that would work for the farmers.”
Subranamian sought support from other people outside of the farmer movements, found a tech provider he could trust, and produced a very useful tool.
CropFit “has brought a revolution among the farmers and buyers,” he says. It has helped farming communities learn who is growing what and where, enabling them to buy seeds from neighboring growers.
The farmers group plans to further develop its application, such as by adding livestock and chickens, a crop advisory function and market information in real time. It also plans to expand use of the tool, across Tamil Nadu and India, and eventually all over the world, Subranamian said.
Schola Campesina & Partners in Eastern Europe and Central Asia developed a mobile application called BILIM (which means knowledge in Central Asian languages) to facilitate learning exchange on agroecology across more than 10 different countries.
The region has a rich history of practicing agroecology, said Maria Anisimova, Co-Founder of Schola Campesina, which works to promote farmer to farmer knowledge sharing, especially among women and youth.
Developing the application was challenging because of the vast number of different languages in the region, which spans the Balkans, Central Asia, Syria, and Turkey.
The group conducted user centered design workshops, both remotely and live, to develop the tool.
BILIM allows users to choose and receive all content in their native language. Users can post a topic, create a discussion or group, or send a private chat.
Çiğdem Artık, chief of Çiftçi-Sen farmers union in Turkey says that Turkish farmers appreciate exchanges with farmers from countries like Pakistan, Tajikistan, or the Balkans. “Generally, we don’t hear their voices and it’s a good advantage for us to hear their experience and knowledge.”
And the Seed Savers Network, a grassroots network of community-based organizations and cooperatives representing 74,000 Kenyan farmers developed the Seed Exchangers app to help remote farmers access native fruit tree seedlings, like dragon fruit, passion fruit, or loquat.
Indigenous fruit trees are at risk of disappearing in Kenya because of a shift in market demand toward more exotic trees. Wambui Wakahiu, a program officer at the Seed Savers Network, warns that this threatens biodiversity, food security and farmers’ ability to adapt to climate change because indigenous varieties are more climate resilient.
Farmers want to incorporate Indigenous varieties on their farms, she said, but they face many challenges accessing the seedlings.
Nursery operators and farmers in the seedlings business have trouble accessing central marketplaces where they can reach buyers, so they set up nurseries along roadsides where passersby can find them. Kenyan authorities, however, won’t certify these roadside nurseries or recognize them as legal businesses.
The Seed Savers Network developed its mobile application to address these problems. The app provides buyers with information on how to care for the plants and access to extension services.
“We are empowering smallholder farmers and small nursery operators. We are enhancing agricultural diversity, contributing to tree cover, and helping in adapting to climate change,” said Wakahiu. The group is also working to make it easier for nursery operators growing native trees to become certified.
While these are inspiring initiatives, there are barriers too. Many farmers in remote areas have poor—if any—internet connection. Ironically, the webinar in which these organizations shared their experiences faced its own connectivity challenges!
Farmers often have older phones that are incompatible with the apps. Older farmers in particular struggle with digital literacy; the average age of farmers worldwide is 57 years. Agroecology groups address these challenges with training programs. Some, like AlterMundi in Argentina, are tackling the issue of connectivity with community-led internet development projects in remote areas.
Still, some groups are hesitant to embrace digital tools, stressing concerns about the technology’s reliance on conflict minerals, companies using farmers’ data to sell them ever more expensive and addictive inputs and a broad concern that technological fixes mask deeper inequalities.
“Hunger will not be resolved by data. Digitization will also not solve structural problems of poverty and injustice,” says Arias.
That is certainly true. But what if the new digital tools are designed with principles of agroecology built into their operating systems? Agroecology rests on practices of applied learning and collaborative co-creation. And as these groups demonstrate, when digital tools are controlled by farmers and consumers, they may be able to facilitate both and ensure that digitization benefits those who technology often leaves behind.
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Photo courtesy of Diego Moreira, Wikimedia Commons