Agrilinks – Scaling and Ecosystem Approach for Digital Extension Services in LAC

Original article appeared in Agrilinks on January 27th 2021 by Diana Popa

Farming in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) is struggling to become a prosperous and sustainable activity, with deep social and economic consequences. Today’s digital technologies, when properly applied to the reality of smallholder farmers, can play a transformative role and change the game. What do they need in order to scale up to the size of the challenge?

Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) may need to double food production by 2050, as 45 percent of the 130 million people in its rural communities live in poverty and 20 percent live in extreme poverty. Moreover, extreme weather events affect more people than ever, with historic highs in terms of losses.

While the region’s cities are at the top of the information revolution, smallholder farmers — most of whom live in rural areas — lack timely access to critical information for decision-making. This is one of the main barriers for rural development and poverty alleviation.

Without access to weather forecasts, farmers lose production, due to unexpected strong winds, off-season rains, droughts and inappropriate planning. They also are affected by unmanaged epidemics of pests and diseases. Due to lack of market information and training on best practices, they are unable to deliver quality products for ever more demanding markets. As a result, their yields are low, their costs not optimized and their incomes unsustainable, trapping them in a cycle of poverty that is difficult to break.

Due to infrastructure and budgetary limits, traditional technical assistance does not effectively reach the communities that need it most. This is why the use of digital technologies, properly adapted to the reality of smallholder farmers, can be transformative for the region.

The power of digital field services

Today, information is abundant, and the latest technological advances in communication and data analysis provide a range of effective tools to make relevant information available to those who support our food supply chains and need it most. Estimated at 70 percent in 2020, mobile connections are on track to reach 75 percent of LAC’s population by 2025.

Various international studies found mobile-delivered information can improve innovation adoption, reduce crop losses and increase incomes. In Extensio’s own experience working with 19,000 smallholders in the region since 2015, we recognized farmer benefits like greater resilience to natural shocks (due to access to weather and pest alerts); high retention and application of better agricultural practices (due to training messages); and higher incomes (due to stronger market connections and price information).

To achieve these results, we customize each project’s design, based on the needs of agricultural organizations and farmers. We also monitor real-time information for dissemination, use relevant farmer communication channels — whether SMS, WhatsApp or phone calls — and maintain a strong feedback and evaluation loop.

Digital extension services in LAC are a flourishing sector; however, the current scale is still far from the region’s potential. The largest digital agriculture services in Latin America manage projects of typically just 1,000 to 5,000 users, making them difficult to sustain long term, according to the GSMA.

What do we need to scale?

Access to mobile data, access to smartphones, network coverage, the advanced age of typical smallholder farmers and low technological literacy require highly empathic project designs to support adoption, which makes implementation more complex. Also, content actionability and technology adaptation to smallholders’ reality are key.

However, deep and lasting social rural development also relies on connections between suppliers (farmers) and markets, building trust and stable commercial relationships. Therefore, in our opinion, the region needs a solid ecosystem for digital extension services, with three main types of actors getting involved:

      1. Government support. Farming in LAC is closely related to public policies and field technical assistance. Governments still manage the largest databases of farmers in the region. Digital extension services offer a tremendous tool for governments to increase the efficiency of their training programs, control and manage rural aid and consolidate agriculture as a vector of development for their countries. In addition, they can do it at scale— either directly, as the government of Ethiopia currently does, or through private partners, significantly lowering customer acquisition and implementation costs.
      2. Telecom companies. The role of telecoms has proven instrumental in continents like Africa and Asia for the adoption of digital services. Vodafone’s M-PESA is now Africa’s largest mobile money service. Telenor manages digital extension services for millions of farmers in Asia. Having regional LAC telecom companies rise up to the challenge and seize the opportunity would definitely be a game-changer for the industry.
      3. Greater private sector industry adoption and cooperation. Digital extension services are an effective and efficient tool for agricultural companies to systematize the communication and management of their supply chains and ensure that even their smallest suppliers have access to the necessary information to supply high quality crops. We have acknowledged it firsthand with our clients, and this is a service we continue to offer now to agriculture organizations, industry groups, insurance and financial companies, in partnership with Acceso. Particularly with private organizations that provide market information and linkages, this is a critical offering complementary to the digital information. It is highly valued by farmers for the potential income boost and the ability for digital tools to alleviate poverty.

In summary, we need to create the ecosystem for transformative technologies to develop, scale and positively impact our societies and economies. We look forward to sharing progress, as we implement and scale Extensio throughout LAC alongside Acceso, and we are eager to hear our fellow ICTforAg colleagues’ stories and ideas on how to consolidate this ecosystem for the region.

Diana Popa is founder and CEO of Extensio, a Mexican B-Corporation and “digital field agent” dedicated to consolidating farming as a sustainable activity for present and future generations, through timely mobile access to critical information for decision making. Since its creation end of 2015, Extensio has impacted 19,000 farmers and over 300,000 people in rural communities in Mexico, Colombia and Ecuador together with agribusinesses, research centers and field NGOs including Modelo, Bavaria, CIMMYT, and Alternare. At the end of 2020, Extensio joined forces with social business builder Acceso, thus growing its service reach to El Salvador and Haiti and integrating it into a comprehensive field and digital farming solution for smallholder agriculture in Latin America and the Caribbean.

In summary, we need to create the ecosystem for transformative technologies to develop, scale and positively impact our societies and economies.
– Diana Popa, Co-founder and CEO of Extensio