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Technology for African agriculture: more than just a text message

For decades, agronomists and others interested in agricultural development in Africa prioritised the development and promotion of new technology. Across the continent, new crop varieties, soil fertility management regimes, pest control methods and the like have been at the heart of efforts to promote small-holder intensification.

Along the way, there was at least some (at first grudging) recognition of the social, political and institutional aspects of technology and technical change. These factors were brought increasingly into analysis of successful (and unsuccessful) cases of technology development and promotion. More recently, mainstream discourse around agricultural research and technology development in Africa has incorporated broader notions from innovation studies, including innovation systems and innovation platforms.

The message is clear: innovation is a complex, socio-technical process, the realities of which were poorly reflected in some older models of agricultural extension, technology transfer and one-way ‘messaging’. But this terrain seems to be shifting again.

Last week’s conference on Youth Economic Opportunities in Washington, DC had a particular focus on employment opportunities for young people in rural areas, and consequently there was much discussion of agriculture and related activities. The word ‘technology’ was on everyone’s lips, and once again the assumption was that technology would be at the very centre of a youth-led revolution in rural enterprise.

However, the technology everyone was referring to was information and communications technology – cell phones and SMS messaging in particular. Agricultural technology was seldom mentioned, and there was little sign of any sympathy with the new, much messier understandings of processes of technical change.

In fact, the take-over of the technology agenda by the cell phone and SMS promoters was so complete that we were asked to believe that the ‘know how’ and ‘how to’ of African agriculture could be reduced to a series of ‘practices’ to be pushed out through SMS messaging or accessed by one mobile platform or another.

My argument here is not with the potential value of mobile telephony or related communications technologies. Rather it is with the overly simplistic conceptions of agricultural technology and the processes by which it changes, which seem to underpin both private and public efforts promote agriculture revolution in Africa via SMS.

One of the hard won battles of the last three decades was the understanding that when it comes to agricultural intensification and technical change, context and fine-grained differences matter tremendously. Thus, the real challenge is to harness the undoubted power of mobile communication technology without losing sight of the fact that agriculture in all its forms is a socio-technical undertaking par excellence. Without a nuanced and situated appreciation of the complex dynamics of technology development and use in African agriculture, the much heralded gains from the spread of information technology may prove to be little more than pipe dream.

Further reading:

Source: by Jim sumberg on Future Agricultures Website

Photo: CIAT Kisumu 12 by CIAT on Flickr