How do family farmers perceive digital solutions in the LAC Region

By Andres Sanchez FORAGRO/IICA

Digital agriculture solutions are considered by many as innovations per se. However, if we more ambitiously see innovation as “an iterative, social process characterized by attempts, trial and errors”, aimed to “respond to one or more constraints hindering the wellbeing of an individual, of a group, or of a whole community”(1), then understanding the attitudes, needs and constraints of those who need and will use the solutions becomes key to the realization of truly innovative digital solutions.    
This is why the GFAR partners in the Collective Action on Inclusive Digital Transformation of Agriculture in Latin America and the Caribbean wanted to lay the ground for the Action starting with a survey of family farmers’ attitudes towards digital solutions in the region.

Using a smartphone or computer, sending a message, posting to social media, or browsing the internet sound like easy and common everyday operations. Looking only at the data, where there are 7.26 billion of mobile phones users worldwide and approximately 10.37 billion mobile connections, apparently they are. However, what about access to digital services in rural areas, where agriculture is the main source of employment? What kind of digital challenges do family smallholders experience? What use do they see for digital solutions, which types do they use and which not, and why? Some of these concerns were evaluated in a survey sent to family farmers in Latin America and the Caribbean to understand their perception of challenges and opportunities of digital solutions.
The objective of the survey is to get a first-hand overview of smallholder farmers’ attitudes before conducting targeted interviews on individual experiences. This will lay the ground for consultations between farmers and other actors on good practices and business models for farmer-fair and inclusive design of digital solutions.

The survey

The survey took place from October 11th to November 1st and it was coordinated by FORAGRO and COPROFAM and supported by GODAN, AgGateway Latin America and GFAR.
The survey was conducted using virtual channels and sent to the networks of the Latin American partners, primarily COPROFAM’s network of family farmers’ associations. It consisted of 26 questions, both open and closed, related to the use and adoption of digital technologies both for general purposes and for farming. Questions related to general connectivity and access, the kind of technological equipment, which apps/tools are used and for which activities, and obstacles faced by family smallholders. In total, 358 responses were collected from 17 different countries: 14 Latin American countries and 3 Caribbean countries.

Main findings

Technology can improve techniques and practices which boost the agricultural output of small family farmers. But do family farmers use technological equipment? As general outcomes, Mesoamerica and the Caribbean present the highest percentage in the use of both smartphone and computer (80%) and the lowest percentage of farmers who do not use any technological tool (4%). The Andean region has the lowest percentage in the use of both technologies, which may be due to geographic conditions per se. Nevertheless, the implementation of technology also implies, unfortunately, a gap related to gender opportunities, as shown in Figure 1, where around 10% more men have access to a computer, smart phone and other equipment as drones, GPS, sensors and more.

Figure 1. Technological equipment implementation by gender

Among those who do use digital equipment, we wanted to know which types of services they use and for which purposes. Most participants are using applications for communication purposes with family, friends, other farmers and attending meetings. It can be noticed that in spite of being farmers, very few respondents use applications related to agricultural activities, e.g., field data acquisition (crop, soil, precipitation, temperature, etc.), financial services, certification, traceability of products and automatization, as shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2. Apps/tools used by farmers.

However, it is interesting to see that under a different question (which types of farming-related apps or services do you use), at least half of the respondents use digital extension services (probably not associated by respondents with agri-apps in the previous question) and 25% uses software for smart appliances (sensors, drones etc.), which suggests there is a percentage of family farmers that can tell interesting stories on their experience with digital solutions.

Figure 3. Services used by family farmers

The survey also highlights that the major challenge identified in getting useful data and advice for farming from digital services is that useful data is expensive or The survey also highlights that the major challenge identified in getting useful data and advice for farming from digital services is that useful data is expensive or protected by property rights, and quite a few respondents find that the information they find is not fully relevant for their needs. On top of that, around half of the respondents face general problems of connectivity (unreliable signal) and connectivity and service costs. On this last aspect, it may be worth mentioning that the international telecoms represent the principal connectivity supplier, being the Southern region the one with the lowest percentage (47%), evidencing the influence of suppliers with greater infrastructure and investment capital, decreasing the opportunity of local entities or community networks.

Figure 4. Challenges using digital information or services.

It may be interesting to note, analyzing Figure 3, that the difference between men and women related to the use of apps and/or services for advisory services or extension and data-driven decision making is  approximately 8% and 9%, respectively. According to FAO, women tend to have significantly less access to information resources for agriculture (FAO, 2011). However, according to the results of the 2021 Mobile Gender Gap Report in Latin America (GSMA, 2021), the gender gap has decreased for mobile ownership and mobile internet use for the period 2017-2020, which seems to be in line with the survey results. Also, another possible indicator in the same direction is that more women than men indicated that they do not encounter any of the challenges indicated in Figure 4.  

Next steps

The next stage will be to contact some of the participants to learn more about their experiences using digital agriculture tools, success stories, their factors and characteristics. These experiences together with the survey results will inform the upcoming business models consultations. Stay tuned for the publication of the full survey report and for updates on this Collective Action in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Thanks to Viviana Palmieri and Valeria Pesce for their comments

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(1) Definitions elaborated in the context of the Agrinovia higher education program on innovation (https://www.agrinovia.net/)

This blog is part of the GFAR Partners in Action series, celebrating the achievements of our diverse network of partners who are working together to shape a new, sustainable future for agriculture and food. Each month we will be showcasing stories related to a key theme in agri-food research and innovation. The theme for Febuary is ‘Innovations in Agriculture’.

Join the conversation in the comments below or share this article on social media using #GFARinAction.


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