The overlooked ecosystem problem for technology innovation in agriculture

Agriculture is lifting off in the world of start-ups. Google’s Eric Schmidt recently announced an accelerator dedicated to backing startups in the domain. This is an encouraging development that could bring agriculture to the forefront of the digital tech ecosystem, and might even give it a top position in the field of tech innovation.

But despite the opportunity of commercial venture capital directing itself to agriculture, there is a major overlooked problem that tech development in ag faces, and that is the condition of its ecosystem around entrepreneurship and startups.

The agricultural sector suffers from a backlog in terms of informed entrepreneurship skills. Generally speaking, agricultural engineers, who either design solutions for farmers, or are farmers themselves, know very little about entrepreneurship. They build things animals and plants like, but not necessarily their human users. Agriculture knows tons about engineering, but little about the innovation that is required to successfully support new technology adoption in the farmers’ market.

Leadership is the second ecosystem problem in agriculture. In a dynamic landscape, like that of agriculture at the moment, it’s important that there are leaders out there that can define an end to which the game will likely play out. From defining such an end, you can then work backwards, and make the hard decision about what activities and initiatives you should be undertaking now, to move in a trajectory towards that end, even if this goes against the grain of conventional wisdom. (I strongly encourage you to read John Hagel’s recent two posts on the future shape of strategy)

However, many of agriculture’s leaders don’t give much for landscape thinking and futurism. They prefer to work with linear progression, departing from the handful of business models that have ruled agriculture for the past 50 years, for their predictions of the future. This is not such a fruitful perspective for a market environment in which technology tends to blur, rather than affirm classic industry boundaries.

The ecosystem challenges are not only of the broad landscape definition kind. They also lie in the specificities of tech design for farmers. Particularly the basic technology user experience for farmers has not been understood thus far. For instance, a startup called Farmobile is betting on its own hardware module to function as a data bridge between reading out data from tractor and machine sensors, and mass storage on the cloud. Farmobile explicitly states that they don’t work with mobile phones and tablets, because they break, get lost, have batteries that drain too quickly, and are cumbersome to use in pairing for farmers and their farms hands.

Convention would dictate that the mobile platform be used. Such a choice for explicit distantiation as Farmobile has taken from mobile would generally be considered as Silicon sacrilege. But I am convinced Farmobile knows their users better than convention dictates, and is making the right bet on UX. A bold decision which nobody, or no precursor could support them to make as of yet.

The bottom line is that there is no ecosystem yet of founding teams with experience and mentors and investors alike, who understand what lies ahead for agriculture and the practical challenges to overcome. That ecosystem is yet to be built. I predict, nay warn, that if “ecosystem” remains optimistically overlooked in the new investment strategies that are popping up for agriculture, that the lack of entrepreneurship, leadership, and design is going to be one of the big, hard walls that tech development in agriculture will hit.

Design for the emerging rural economy

According to the IFAD (International Fund for Agricultural Development), 3 billion people in developing countries live in rural areas. Agriculture is the main source of income for 86% of this population. Within this farming community, smallholder farmers make up the bulk of farmers (for more stats see the FAO rural economy fact sheet). Arguably, they have contributed substantially to the growth that many developing countries have experienced over the recent few years, not unlike SME’s being the motor behind Western economies. Smallholder farmers are thus an important group for working together with in our global ambitions of creating social and economic development (as demonstrated by the UN initiative of proclaiming 2014 to be the year of the family farm).

One of the leading strategies in developing smallholder farmers is providing them with knowledge and information on agricultural practices. The idea is that this will improve practices, make production more sustainable, and improve operations of the market. Given the increase in dissemination of (mobile) technology communication devices, there also appears to be a huge potential for reaching scale with ICT’s in outreach of these information and knowledge dissemination approaches.    

Smallholder farmers
Smallholder farmers by Jeroen Meijer from JAM visueeldenken

Despite the significance of the group of smallholders and the opportunity at hand, there is still a lot we are yet to understand about them. The majority of their lives take place in informal economic settings, where local activities and rules apply that simply do not light up on the formal business development radar. There is no real understanding available on their everyday lives and priorities. For instance the chocolate multinational considers the cocoa farmer, simply because she has a cocoa tree and supplies cocoa to the world market. But this farmer herself might see things differently:

I side-sell some of the milk to keep my husband from spending the earnings on anything other than our kids’ school fees,

I need to learn from a cousin about rearing rabbits to serve the growing number of road side dining stalls opening up in town, which are willing to extend me a loan to start operations,

I’m skipping dinner tonight to save up for airtime so I can call that trader which has recently been asking specifically for that variety of  mangos. It will save me the hassle of getting produce transported on market day and getting a raw deal in any case.

There is thus a huge gap in understanding, aggravated by the sheer number of people we’re talking about, and we have little basis to relate. As there is no substitute to fill this lack in understanding, smallholder farmers are oftentimes unfittingly lumped together in service and development program designs. There is no basis for targeting innovations to specific groups, nor obtaining specific feedback about what works for whom, and what doesn’t. The result can only be that a lot of the available information and knowledge doesn’t arrive or ‘stick’. A majority of smallholder farmers is likely to be underserved and under-utilised in their capacities to contribute to economic and social development.

We need to drastically enhance and update our understanding, if we intend to reach out to the smallholder farmer. And we should start with the basics such as:

  • Different mental models that farmers use for managing and operating their farms, which would reveal particular workflows and basic farm decision making foundations
  • Basic technology usage patterns that would reveal insights on user experience design requirements
  • Rules and systems that apply to the informal economy context, as well as business models that are currently successfully serving farmers.
  • The role of community and networks, and their social conventions and taboos, which make up the existing ecosystem in which the farmer organizes her life.
  • Lastly and most importantly, we need to understand farmers’ aspirations, and how to appeal to those aspirations, to provide an adequate basis of relation.

A proposition
It is evident that such research needs to be done, but it shouldn’t be done for research’s sake. Rather, understanding needs to be turned into actionable insights. What if we could develop processes, tools, and personas which would aid in segmenting farmers in a specific context for targeting innovations? Support materials, which would capacitate companies, CSR initiatives, and dedicated organizations working with smallholder farmers to design and build for their specific purposes in agricultural product and service development.

Tools and processes for segmentation
Process and tools for achieving segmentation by Jeroen Meijer from JAM visueeldenken

The aim would not so much be to directly provide solutions, but more so to put the design process and tools into the hands of the people who are most closely related to the problems at hand. On top of that there would be a need for continuous adaptation, tailoring, and distribution of such a resource to different and changing contexts, as developing country economies are in continuous growth flux.

Boldly stating, I say that such a resource would need to be developed and made available in the form of an organisation with a public purpose of overcoming our current common barriers to purposeful marketing to smallholder farmers. This would be a social venture, which would maintain itself by publically providing, tools, processes, and basic insights to customers. Furthermore this organisation could help out in tailoring to specific business and service development interests, based on agricultural practices, but fanning out into other areas like finance, insurance, farming input sales, sourcing practices, extension services, agribusiness sourcing, etc. To give the vision a name, I have dubbed this organization Ardhi, which is a holistic term in Swahili signifying soil, ground, or suitable (farm)land.

The Farmer
Insight and understanding of the farmer by Jeroen Meijer from JAM visueeldenken

Further idea development
Now I do warn that there is no clear fix for this initiative. We have the basic design tools and technology resources available, but they need to be tailored and refined towards a new market setting through the only way possible: practical experimentation and learning. It will thus be a journey, one which I would like to invite you on to as well.

I am part of a dedicated consortium, which is ready to start this research journey by looking into the space of information and knowledge exchange relating to agricultural practices. Over the past year, we have been enabled through seed funding to conduct a feasibility study in Kenya and India for our research, and compile a research plan (several insights previously published under the VCD category on this blog). We combine the skills of design, technology and agriculture for emerging markets. Leading this consortium are:

Bart Doorneweert, agriculture researcher at Wageningen University
Syamant Sandhir, tech specialist at Futurescape
Ric Edinberg, design researcher at Insitum

Together, we would like to hear from you about your interest for our initiative. Specifically we are looking for people and organizations that can help us on our innovation journey through either:

  • Field work collaboration- Involve us in projects in the early scoping and design stage
  • Testing research process and tool prototypes, and applying preliminary insights- Private sector and NGO parties collaborating with private sector who are interested to obtain and apply early insights and actively co-create methods and materials with us.
  • Providing broad-based funding support for deep-dive research to develop materials and insights, and seek the limits of their application. – Funding organizations that support the idea of strengthening the ecosystem of service and product development for smallholder farmers.

If you are interested to be involved, then do make yourself heard by dropping us a bit on your background and interests here. We look forward to hearing from you, and hopefully engaging with you in the near future! Do keep track with the progress of our journey under the Ardhi category of posts that will come.