Digital tools and services such as short message services (SMS), digitally enabled extension services, and artificial intelligence have helped market system actors in developing countries overcome common challenges in the agriculture sector, such as accessing weather information and diagnosing pest or disease outbreaks.

Despite the documented value of these innovations, uptake of digital agriculture technology still is not widespread. A lack of affordable and accessible technologies, poor connectivity, high costs of data, and social stigmas around digital technology can be major barriers to potential users. With COVID-19 making digital connectivity critical to economic activities, development stakeholders have spent the past year and a half assessing the relationship between the pandemic and the adoption and use of digital agriculture.

Constructing a Rapid Analysis

To support market system actors as they navigate the opportunities and challenges of digital transformation amidst COVID-19, the U.S Agency for International Development (USAID) Bureau for Resilience and Food Security employed the DAI-managed Digital Frontiers project to commission a rapid analysis. The analysis aimed to understand the impacts of digital tools among agricultural market system actors concerning COVID-19. The analysis focused on three key objectives:

  1. Identifying and analyzing the trends driving the adoption of digital tools in agriculture market systems in response to the global pandemic.
  2. Providing examples of such digital solutions across market system actors.
  3. Providing concrete and actionable recommendations for USAID missions and implementing partners to ensure that digital tools can be used effectively to increase resilience in the face of future threats.

The research team focused on eight countries: Bangladesh, Ghana, Guatemala, Kenya, Malawi, Nepal, Niger, and Senegal. Findings demonstrated that market actors increased their use of digital solutions as a result of the pandemic, while digital service providers moved quickly to launch and adapt their existing services to meet the evolving needs of their customers. Researchers also observed that the rapid onset of the pandemic led market system actors to reach for familiar tools or services already available to continue operations. Very few market actors adopted “newly” launched digital solutions in direct response to COVID-19. (The full research findings are discussed in more depth here and in the report itself.)

50267038282_392bac077d_o-843190.jpgPhoto Credit: Flickr, Sanjoy Chandra Bhattacherjee.

From Research to Action

The research team developed a group of supplemental guidance documents to help donors and implementing partners support agriculture market actors respond to shocks like COVID-19 and beyond. The documents focus on three digitally enabled solutions—E-commerce Marketplaces, Farmer Management Solutions, and Expanding Mobile Phone Access and Ownership— and highlight how these solutions work, how they’ve been used in different contexts, and how they can be assessed and introduced. While I strongly recommend exploring these guidance documents for helpful tips, I summarized a few of the standard checklist items below. I hope they are helpful for those in the process of supporting market system actors through the ever-changing landscape that COVID-19 has introduced.

Assess the Landscape: Before introducing any new digital solution, it is critical first to conduct a landscape or market assessment to determine if it is the right fit for your target population. Determine the size of the potential customer base, whether there is demand for such a solution, what similar solutions are already available in the marketplace, any potential supply- and demand-side constraints, and relevant user information such as the degree to which they already use digital tools, their literacy levels, and barriers to access.

Test and Engage: Do not be afraid to test out promising solutions identified during your assessment. The guidance recommends that for publicly accessible services like e-commerce platforms, implementers and donors should set up accounts to log in and explore the platform’s functionality. Pay special attention to the type and quantity of items sold, user-friendliness, and branding. Chances are, if you find a platform challenging or confusing to use, so will others. Reach out to the digital service provider to identify opportunities for collaboration and ask questions.

Prepare for Partnerships: Strategic partnerships are an essential part of bringing digital solutions to scale. Some partnerships institutions—such as banks, mobile network operators, and wholesale mobile phone vendors—operate outside of the development world—which can help provide users with digital devices at more affordable costs. Securing such partnerships and making them sustainable requires preparation. Be prepared to discuss the potential market opportunities that further engagement would bring and anticipate the partner’s expectations and risks. Do not forget to provide data, reports, or business case studies to convey how said risks have and can be mitigated.

Consult Your Stakeholders: When considering introducing a new solution, organize stakeholder meetings with key influencers such as farmer groups, agribusinesses, buyers, implementing partners, digital service providers, key digital experts, donors, and other private sector members. Organizing these meetings ensures knowledge collaboration and can help gather consensus around the digital solution’s viability. Stakeholder meetings can serve as opportunities to pause and reflect. If stakeholder consultations deem the tool unsuitable, there is no shame in pursuing other digital or non-digital avenues! However, if the solution is ideal, stakeholder meetings offer a space to discuss the next steps for digital service providers, users, and other potential partners.

Take Action and Provide Support: If an appropriate digital solution is identified—great! The market system actors your activity is targeting should already be aware of the solution if they attended the stakeholder consultations. If they expressed interest in pursuing it further, there are plenty of ways to provide support to ensure that they can sustainably benefit from the solution long after your project has ceased. Options include providing capacity-building support to users or service providers, and developing action plans, conducting risk assessments, running cost analyses, and offering training.

Share What You’ve Learned: Last but not least, share your findings! Let your colleagues, counterparts, and fellow digital development professionals know how the solution is working and any measurable outcomes. Capturing outcomes—such as an increase in income or improvements in quality or quantity of produce sold—all contribute to the evidence base for digital agricultural solutions to help funders determine scalable or investment-worthy solutions. If, and when, we face another massive global disruption like COVID-19, knowing which digital solutions lead to measurable outcomes can help make agricultural market systems around the world more resilient.