Reflecting back on 2020, it is still difficult for me to comprehend the many challenges the world faced this year and their implications for agriculture and resilience. From the locust outbreak in East Africa, to wildfires and extreme weather events, and of course, the COVID-19 pandemic, this year has made it clear that in a world increasingly shaped by unpredictability, the digital development community can no longer afford to address one specific challenge at a time. This year’s ICTforAg conference invited its speakers and participants to reflect on this reality and discover how digital tools and technologies can help us respond to concurrent—and increasingly frequent—crises worldwide.
On November 18, participants from around the globe came together for ICTforAg 2020, an annual conference hosted by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and implemented by the Digital Frontiers project. Like other conferences and events, ICTforAg embraced the unique opportunity that this challenging year has presented. The conference pivoted from an in-person event to an online gathering featuring perspectives from across the world of digital agriculture. The conference’s three overarching themes were:
Systems-oriented solutions: seeking solutions, learnings, and knowledge that impact food and/or water systems;
Digital inclusion: sharing new learnings and knowledge related to the access and adoption of digital agriculture and resilience-focused tools, and;
Private sector engagement: strengthening the understanding and application of best practices in engaging the private sector for responsible and appropriate leveraging of digital agriculture and resilience-focused tools.
Capitalizing on an increased global reach made possible through a virtual event, ICTforAg offered an opportunity for inclusive conversation about the state of digital agriculture in a truly unprecedented year. The event felt truly immersive and unique in its diversity of speakers, including content in French and Spanish and a session, Ask Me Anything: Farmers, that featured farmers from Colombia, Ghana, Paraguay, Brazil, and Bangladesh.
Over the course of the day, ICTforgAg hosted 1,502 participants and 82 speakers from around the world who contributed to 26 sessions over 16 hours. This massive effort would not have been possible without the expertise and flexibility of our colleagues at DevGlobal Partners and a steering committee of experts and thought leaders from USAID; the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; the World Bank; the Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office (FCDO); and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).
Addressing Concurrent Crises
In the wake of a historic year, ICTforAg 2020 examined how digital solutions in agriculture are fostering resilience in the wake of unexpected disruptions. As someone who prefers to focus on one task or problem at a time, I was deeply inspired by the experiences of farmers, digital innovators, donors, and project implementers who continue to draw from deep wells of creativity and ingenuity to overcome concurrent crises and market shocks.
Speakers Brian King, Moushumi Khan, and Eric Lovell discuss the role of digital technology in addressing layered disruptions.
Highlighting the importance of collaboration, adaptability, and user-centricity, ICTforAg speakers discussed what it will take to ensure that the digital agriculture tools and services of today and tomorrow can withstand the political, environmental, and social challenges in our midst. To that end, the session, Digital Responses to Layered Disruptions, was one of my favorites and left me with a number of important takeaways. I share them below:
Collaboration and Collective Problem Solving is Key
In order to transition from reactive to proactive responses to global crises such as COVID-19, information sharing and knowledge management within and between stakeholders is key. Speaker Brian King, Coordinator for the CGIAR Platform for Big Data in Agriculture, noted that in order to achieve the flexibility, visibility, velocity, and collaboration needed to quickly respond to shocks within the agricultural market system, networks of partners that have structures in place to share data quickly and efficiently are critical.
Digital platforms offer an opportunity for stakeholders up and down an agricultural value chain to share observations, deliver trainings, and enable timely information sharing that supports the development of inclusive, collective solutions. As Brian stated, “this ability to dynamically manage multi-stakeholder networks and the ability to rapidly and collaboratively respond to challenges is going to become an increasingly important capability as we face more combinatorial shocks.”
Don’t Lose Sight of the Primary Challenges
COVID-19 and the increasing frequency of other market shocks has increased demand for digital solutions and will likely usher in a new wave of innovation. However, we must also address more fundamental challenges to ensure that countries have strong digital ecosystems that support these tools and technologies.
As Moushumi Khan, Country Director at the Foundation for Charitable Activities in Bangladesh, highlighted, access remains a major barrier in many contexts around the globe. Weak connectivity, unreliable power sources, and limited access to mobile or digitally enabled devices prevents many members of the agriculture sector, especially women, from participating effectively in their industry. Further, digital platforms and applications that have not adequately incorporated regional, social, or cultural considerations—or traditional knowledge and agricultural methods—risk damaging the way stakeholders perceive the usefulness of digital technology. Without addressing some of these core challenges, the role that digital tools can play in bolstering resilience in the face of layered disruptions will be limited.
Data Integration Can Increase Our Foresight
While climate change and protracted conflicts have increased the likelihoods of famine in places such as Yemen and Southern Africa, disruptions to agricultural production and trade caused by the COVID-19 pandemic threaten to expand the threat of extreme hunger worldwide, especially in fragile economies. Eric Lovell, Account Manager of Nonprofit & Global Organizations at Esri, noted that better integration and synthesis of data coming from a wide range of technical disciplines can help strengthen platforms that enable decision support for agriculture sector stakeholders. Organizations seeking to build these integrated platforms must consider how best to facilitate knowledge co-production, increase technological accessibility, identify inherent bias in the data, and expand the capacity of local knowledge hubs to ensure that this information remains accessible and relevant to local communities.
Preparing for the Next Crisis
As Brian King noted in the question and answer portion of the session, the world has never been as digitally enabled as it is today. These capabilities offer an opportunity for development stakeholders to be more agile and coordinated in our responses to global crises. While this is reason for great optimism, we must not allow digitalization to become an end in itself. Let us use this opportunity to strengthen our collaborations, institutionalize our partnerships, and continue to advocate for digital inclusion. This will ensure that we are more prepared—or as prepared as we can be—for the next set of crises that we may face.
This blog was written with assistance from Alana McGinty, Senior Program Manager, USAID Digital Frontiers.