Delivering Digitally to Mitigate Crisis and Secure the Future


How does one empower smallholder farmers during the COVID-19 pandemic? Jonathan Lehe – PAD’s Chief Development Officer and Director of New Programs – reflects on the powerful advantages of digital information systems in a context of crisis, and how acting now will lay a foundation for future development.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic brought the world to its knees, I was eagerly awaiting the 12th ICT4D Conference which had been scheduled to take place in Abuja, Nigeria in April. As with so many aspects of our lives that we have had to adjust to protect ourselves and our communities from this virus, the ICT4D Conference had to adjust, and went virtual. 

As part of the virtual conference, I had the pleasure of participating in a webinar on the topic “Supporting Farmers with Low-Cost Digital Tools During COVID-19” where I spoke about the work PAD is doing to support smallholder farmers during the pandemic. The webinar turned out to be a great success, and unwittingly demonstrated how digital technology can provide innovative solutions to overcome some of the adverse effects of this crisis, and showcased how digital channels can make information accessible to a wider audience, far beyond the lucky few who would have been reached in person.

Smallholder farmers are among the most vulnerable populations in the world, and are particularly vulnerable to negative shocks associated with this pandemic. We believe that digital information services are particularly well-placed to help farmers respond to the pandemic, for several reasons. Digital services: 

  • do not require face-to-face contact with farmers, and can be maintained at a time when in-person services are impossible; 
  • are highly scalable – PAD’s services reach 3.6 million farmers in eight countries around the world; 
  • are cost-effective – PAD’s advisory services cost just $1.55 per farmer per year, on average; 
  • are available on demand; 
  • democratize access to information – reaching farmers with the simplest feature phones, no data coverage, and limited digital literacy, and those in many hard-to-reach, fragile, or conflict-affected settings which traditional extension cannot reach; 
  • enable two-way communication, so we can gather real-time data from farmers;
  • can be highly customized and tailored to users’ needs; and 
  • can be continuously iterated and improved in real-time. 

These features are particularly valuable in an emergency situation when conditions on the ground change rapidly.

To respond to COVID-19, PAD is adapting and broadening our digital information services to meet farmers’ evolving needs: 

In Kenya, where traditional extension has been completely disrupted, our MOA-INFO platform, which we implement in collaboration with the Ministry of Agriculture, remains fully available to the 360,000 farmers it serves, and is expanding to include advisory content on three new crops. This platform was originally designed to respond to a different emergency – the Fall Armyworm outbreak which ravaged Africa in 2018 – and from its inception was designed to facilitate a two-way flow of information and adapt rapidly to farmers’ needs. 

In Uganda, where PAD is conducting research comparing in-person and digital extension in partnership with TechnoServe and HRNS, in-person training has been halted entirely due to strict social distancing protocols. Unaffected by restrictions on human movement, PAD has stepped in to provide comprehensive digital advice to smallholder coffee farmers. We have also adapted our service to provide COVID-19 advisory content based on the Ministry of Health’s official recommendations, including a description of common symptoms, how to avoid spreading the virus, and how to get additional information. 

In India, while traditional extension has been suspended, PAD’s digital services have remained open, and continue to serve 830,000 farmers across six states, while adding thousands of new farmers to the platform each month. In addition to our existing services we are expanding our advisory content to address several critical new information gaps in response to COVID-related market disruptions. In many cases, we collect crowd-sourced information from farmers, triangulate this information using multiple farmer data sources, validate it with a subset of farmers to ensure its accuracy, and inform farmers about its source when we disseminate it. Crowd-sourced information about which markets remained open, which crops are sold on what days and at what prices, and which agricultural activities are exempt from lockdowns may change from day to day, so having access to real-time information can be enormously useful to farmers. Other types of new content include how to produce organic inputs while markets are inaccessible, and how to store crops that cannot be sold at markets. 

In a crisis like this, gathering systematic and reliable data on challenges confronting rural populations can be difficult. PAD has built and maintains a large user database of farmers spanning eight geographies on two continents. This provides us with real-time feedback we can use to rapidly understand and respond to shifting needs as the pandemic evolves. 

PAD is conducting a multi-country phone survey of farmers, agro-dealers, and extension workers in Kenya, India, Pakistan, and Uganda to rigorously understand the pandemic’s impact. We are collecting data on a wide range of agricultural market disruptions, including farmers’ access to input and output markets, food security, price changes, income loss, migration, and other adverse events. We are also collecting health-related data, including farmers’ knowledge and perception of public health messages, and adherence to recommended behaviors such as hand washing and social distancing.

Looking ahead, PAD is working on several new digital tools that can be rapidly deployed to help farmers respond to market disruptions. Building trust with our users during more normal times enables us to quickly adapt and provide valuable new services. For example, we are creating a vetted database of agro-dealers and output buyers, and connecting farmers with these intermediaries so that key services are not interrupted. As mentioned above, we are aggregating and disseminating crowd-sourced market information to farmers, including crop prices which are fluctuating more than usual. We are also expanding our services to include COVID-specific health information, such as disseminating public health campaigns on hand washing and social distancing. User-centered design and A/B testing, which are deeply embedded in our services, are especially valuable in this rapidly changing context. For example, A/B testing can be used to rigorously determine the optimal way to deliver public health messages to maximize their influence for changing behavior among rural populations. 

Digital agricultural extension is a scalable, cost-effective solution that helps more farmers access actionable information. Digital tools are an important complement to traditional extension services even when in-person extension is available. In an emergency context, when traditional in-person communication channels are impossible, investing in low-cost digital tools to get farmers the information and market linkages they need, to gather real-time information on the challenges on the ground, and to adapt these tools to address these new challenges become urgent priorities. Just as the ICT4D webinar provided me with an opportunity for open dialogue with hundreds of development practitioners across dozens of countries without having to leave my living room, digital agricultural extension is already helping millions of farmers around the world access the best agricultural expertise and advice from the palm of their hand. Investing in digital agriculture now will not only empower farmers to weather the COVID storm in the short term by supporting farmers’ livelihoods and food security, it will also accelerate the long-term transformation of agricultural extension systems and lay the foundation for advances in rural development long into the future.