While official programming in Oxford for the Skoll World Forum was cancelled this year, public events that surround the Forum went virtual. AgriFin coordinated and hosted a successful online webinar, “Scaling Climate Smart Agriculture: Tech, Wins, Fails, Emergencies and Unholy Partnerships“ with six partner panelists, moderated by AgriFin Program Director, Leesa Shrader, and attended by over 160 guests.
The panel consisted of David Bergvinson (Chief Science Officer, aWhere), Sitati Kituyi (Chief Technology Officer, Pula Advisors), Samir Ibrahim (Chief Executive Officer, SunCulture), Laura Crow (Senior Product Manager, M-PESA, Vodafone Group), Gustav Praekelt (Founder Praekelt.org, Co-Founder Turn.io), and Catherine Nakalembe (Africa Program Lead, NASA Harvest).
Countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, where all the above organisations operate, are now in the midst of two major crises: the desert locusts plague, and the Covid-19 Pandemic. The AgriFin Program is working with these organisations to leverage digital tools and services ranging from insurance, climate-smart farming, cash transfer, market adaptation, use of satellite data and mass communication platforms like WhatsApp to equip farmers, the government and private sector actors, to respond to these threats.
The panel engaged world-leading entrepreneurs in a lively and honest discussion about what’s working and what’s not in scaling climate-smart agriculture, emergency response, communications systems for farmers and rapidly emerging digital innovations to respond to, and prepare for, food system shocks. We’ve highlighted some perspectives that stood out around this topic below.
In terms of defining an environment for success, the panel agreed that disruptive tech, the right partnerships, and a shared, long-term goal and vision are critical. “We rode the wave of mobile penetration,” said Gustav (Praekelt), but he noted that organisations should remain conscious of exploiting and promoting human interaction “for humans the most basic form of communication is using speech and imagery.” Partnerships enable organizations the flexibility and agility to diversify their client base and increase product/service adoption by playing to their complementary strengths to learn more about and meet their needs. According to David (aWhere), “Our real goal is to provide farmers with weather data. Given that agriculture is a weather-driven sector, farmers really do need to have insights into how the weather is changing… and what to do about it.”
Balancing the right set of Key Performance Indicators between partners is key to ensure continuous learning and improvement, and one of the pitfalls the panelists identified was the risk of over-emphasising certain KPIs at the costs of others, especially when there are multiple facets of a service given the different partners involved. According to Laura (Vodafone Group), when KPIs don’t reflect the needs of every partner equitably, valuable insights which can incentivise the providers’ behaviors in terms of outreach and in the long run also affect the bottom line can be overlooked, negatively affecting the partnership overall. Another fail, according to Catherine (NASA Harvest), is not being able to provide the level of detail that smallholder farmers need which involve “Packaging and curating and customisation, to use complex information in the farmers’ language that informs how they should behave to mitigate crises”.
Sometimes, emergencies simply call for us to stand up and be counted. The locust infestation, for example, is a key trigger for a rise in insurance claims, during which insurance companies will be needed to respond accordingly. Down the line, this requirement is expected to increase owing to climate change. “Insurance companies play a key role in instilling farmers’ confidence to continue feeding the world,” said Sitati (Pula). Further, it is key that governments continue to recognise food production as one of the key essential services to be sustained during a crisis.
Information is also necessary at decision-maker level in emergencies. Examples of information include crop condition past season, weather forecast, yield data and predictions. Countries that need this information most don’t have the infrastructure to access it directly so partnering with mid-agencies to get them to make their systems robust and relevant for governments to make evidence-driven decisions. Emergencies also call for significant behavior change, i.e. for the provider and customers to migrate to digital and adapt quickly to the needs arising in terms of information and financial services, as well as data utilisation.
According to the Panel, unholy partnerships or alliances refers to partnerships made by taking bets on ideas that haven’t been proven. “Agriculture is one of the oldest industries and trying to change the way food is grown and trying to impact the livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people takes time and having funding partners who understand that has been really important”, said Samir (SunCulture). He added that “Full-stack problems need full-stack solutions”, meaning, only by supporting farmers end-to-end, can we serve them adequately. NASA Harvest, on the other hand, is an experiment from NASA run out of the University of Maryland which grants flexibility in the activities and partnerships NASA can partner with, including research and education institutions, sustaining the organisation’s strong research focus.
The event wound up after a brief but enlightening Q&A from the audience. We were excited to leverage technology to continue this important conversation, with immense interest being shown both during and after the event.
This moment of crisis has presented new opportunities for AgriFin to leverage digital tools and accelerate transformational change for food systems and farmers. In response, AgriFin is working on expanding its partnerships with key actors working in this space to bring innovative solutions to farmers affected by Desert Locusts and COVID-19.
Lydia Bradley – Communications and Event Manager, Corporate and Foundation Partnerships, Mercy Corps
Muthoni Mugo – MErL & Communications Officer, Mercy Corps AgriFin.