Technology Salon

Washington DC

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a discussion at the intersection of technology and development

5 Ways AgTech and KM Can Increase Food Security During COVID-19

The coronavirus pandemic is creating unprecedented food insecurity around the world. The World Food Programme estimates that the number of people facing acute hunger will double to 265 million in 2020.

This global challenge comes on top of existing vulnerabilities including conflict, climate change and economic crises compounded by long-standing social and structural discrimination based on caste, religion and gender.

Food system disruptions have a much larger economic impact in Africa and South Asia where farming accounts for 60% of total employment. The World Bank estimates that agricultural production in Africa could contract by 7%, directly impacting livelihoods and family investment in education, health, and other necessities.

In total, many poor and marginalized communities across the developing world may now fear hunger as a greater or more immediate threat than the coronavirus. This is happening just as COVID 19 is also changing how we can reach and meet smallholder farmer needs that are critical to food security.

How Can AgTech and KM Help COVID-19 Response?

Agriculture technology and knowledge management solutions offer intriguing potential for COVID-19 Digital Response. Across Africa and South Asia, several initiatives are introducing new practices, improving access to inputs, reducing barriers to finance, and increasing resilience of smallholder farmers and their agricultural value chains.

They are also making important inroads to continue to build relationships, exchange knowledge, and offer technical assistance under distanced conditions.

At the recent virtual Technology Salon asking Can We Increase Food Security with AgTech and KM During COVID-19 Response?, four thought leaders inspired a far reaching conversation around agriculture technology and knowledge management in the time of the novel coronavirus pandemic:

  • Zachary Baquet, Knowledge Management Adviser, Policy & Analysis Office, USAID Bureau for Resilience and Food Security
  • Meaghan Murphy, Chief of Party, Feed the Future Knowledge, Data, Learning, and Training, Bixal
  • Laura Harwig, Director, Feed the Future Partnering for Innovation, Fintrac
  • Matt Capelli, Technology Advisor, Smallholder Development Unit, AgDevCo

5 Ways AgTech and KM Can Increase Food Security

Through the discussion, I came away with five key insights on how we can define a new way forward with agriculture technology and knowledge management that can lead to greater food security across the African continent and beyond.

1. Caution on Deploying New Digital Tools

My first take-away was that we should not create brand new digital tools or deploy novel solutions during crisis situations. Program staff, support networks, and vulnerable constituents are not in the mood to work with buggy alpha software or download your new app store find when they are facing personal or community emergencies.

They want quick solutions that just work. Processes that are proven to scale. Whatever will lessen the physical and cognitive burden imposed by the coronavirus disease itself and the lockdowns, curfews, and resulting economic depressions.

2. Radically Ramp Up Existing Digital Tools

That said, a crisis situation is a great time to scale solutions that you’ve already tested, or better yet, that your constituents are already using. One example is how quickly organizations ramped up their use of internal meeting, knowledge creation, and sharing tools like Zoom, Google Drive, Sharepoint, Teams.

Another example is how the WHO is using WhatsApp to share COVID-19 information directly with people worldwide. Billions of people already use WhatsApp, and the WHO was able to share an international number that sends vital COVID-19 information and uses natural language processing to parse responses.

3. Beware Data Privacy and Security

The quick move to online resources, and particularly the quick shift to move all constituent interactions online, created a major data privacy concern. What does “consent” mean to a rural farmer? For that matter, what does “consent” mean to us – even those of us who consider ourselves digitally literate?

We need to follow USAID’s Responsible Data guidance and similar tools to make sure that our headlong rush online doesn’t comprise constituent privacy, or their data security they entrust with us. While we may not think that farmer data is that sensitive, the farmers themselves may have a whole different opinion.

4. Ask Who You Are Leaving Behind

Another consideration in moving online is who we are leaving behind. Who is not online, and equally, who might be online, but not digitally literate enough to understand our approaches? Or who is online, digitally literate, and yet not interested in our newfangled ideas?

One example of this issue is mobile money for farmers. While there are many benefits to digital financial services in agriculture, do farmers really want to be paid in mobile money? Or would they prefer that we figure out a way to pay them in the financial medium of exchange they really want; cold, hard cash.

5. Consider a New Digital Normal

Finally, what really came across in all our discussions was the dawning reality that we are entering a new digital normal. One day, we will have a vaccine or herd immunity and COVID-19 will be a bad memory. Yet will we ever go back to the Before Times? Probably not.

There will be a new digital normal. Many current quasi-digital activities will only be digital. Many current analog activities will soon be digital-preferred, or even digital-only. All of us in the food security ecosystem – government, donor, implementer, constituent will need to adapt. We might as well start now.

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