Panel discussion at COP27: Inclusive climate-smart digital technologies: can/will small-scale farmers get on board?

GFAR Panel discussion at COP27

This year, food systems were for the first time recognized as a key issue at COP27, and for the first time FAO had a Pavilion there, sponsored together with the CGIAR and the Rockefeller Foundation.
GFAR responded to the FAO/CGIAR Pavilion call for side event proposals, and the proposed panel discussion on “Inclusive climate-smart digital technologies: can/will small-scale farmers get on board?” was selected to be hosted at the Pavilion during the COP.

The topic of the side event was proposed because the issue of how inclusive digital agriculture solutions are, which is at the center of the GFAR Collective Action on Inclusive Digital Agriculture, extends of course to digital climate-smart technologies. Digital Climate-Smart Agriculture (CSA) technologies can only help fight climate change if they are embraced by small-scale farmers, who are the majority of farmers worldwide; however, most digital solutions are scalable and profitable especially for big farms. We proposed to bring four panelists to relate their experiences and lessons learnt on concerns and constraints faced by small-scale farmers in the use of digital technologies, including results of surveys, and to give their views on what can be done to promote a more inclusive approach to the design and provision of digital solutions, including policies, co-design approaches, and possible innovative business models.

The panel discussion “Inclusive climate-smart digital technologies: can/will small-scale farmers get on board?” was held on 17/11/2022 from 19:00 to 20:00 local time, at the FAO / CGIAR / Rockefeller Foundation Pavilion. The event was also broadcast from the Pavilion website, and the recording is now available in the CGIAR YouTube channel:  

I moderated the discussion. Two panelists participated in person: Irish Baguilat, Coordinator for UN Decade of Family Farming and Women Farmers' Agenda at Asian Farmers’ Association for Sustainable Rural Development (AFA), and Heitor Dellasta, Conservation and Climate Finance Analyst at SITAWI (“Finance for good”) and YPARD Brasil Country Representative. Two panelists joined online: Viviana Palmieri, Technology and Innovation Specialist at Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA), and Thembani Malapela, OiC Team Leader, Innovations for Digital Agriculture at FAO.
I introduced the discussion saying a few words about GFAR and why GFAR proposed such a topic, linking it to the GFAR Theory of Change and the Collective Action on Inclusive Digital Agriculture. Then I framed the topic in a few statements presented to the panelists for discussion: a) use and benefits of advanced digital Climate-Smart Agriculture (CSA) technologies have been demonstrated in advantaged and homogeneous contexts, primarily large-scale agriculture and research projects; b) small-scale producers (SSPs), who are the vast majority in the world, use digital “precision” technologies minimally; c) yet, the consequences of climate change will mainly need to be managed by millions of small-holders in their day-to-day adaptation/coping strategies, and they way they cope with CC affects the whole planet.
The panelists were invited to provide a first round of Introductory short statements as first thoughts on the topic. Their statements included assertions like “SSPs farmers are the most vulnerable to climate consequences, so they do need solutions, but appropriate, real solution”, “the farmer should be involved in the design of such technologies from the very beginning”, “digital solutions are necessary, if applied appropriately, otherwise they risk putting off farmers”, and “digital solutions are good for small farmers when not in contrast with the agroecological approach”.
Then, to ground the discussion, a round of short video clips was shown with extracts of interviews of SSPs on which uses of digital technologies are most successful for them: the farmers in the video relate use for marketing, exchanging knowledge, getting information and advice on weather and crop growth.
The first question to the panelists was on how these clips compared to their experiences and lessons learnt on actual use of digital technologies by SSPs, and why they think these farmers, who are clearly open to trying digital solutions, chose to try those applications and not others, e.g. precision solutions:

  • The speakers all confirmed that the videos are in line with their experiences, that typical uses are of technologies that fall within the “extended value chain” (extension, marketing), not "hard tools" (robotics etc.).
  • Irish related how AFA farmers’ organizations use ICTs to disseminate info to their members (weather forecast, marketing, connecting members along the value chain) and how from the survey they conducted it resulted that the top activities enhanced by digital tools are: receiving early warning, identifying diseases, managing natural resources.
  • Viviana highlighted that climate-related digital trechnologies are not limited to precision agriculture, but SSPs use digital advisory services, and advanced technologies like Internet-of-Things (IOT) used by digital advisory services can be very useful to increase farmers’ resilience to climate change.
  • Heitor said that some of these usages seem to be in line with an agroecological approach (connecting people, sharing knowledge): digital solutions are often associated with focus on productivity and profit, but SSPs may have diferent priorities, like in the example of SSPs who were icnreasing productivity but felt they didn't have enough time for their food sovereignty: “what is ‘good’ depends on the metrics”.
  • Thembani confirmed that main usages are around market access to information, and successful solutions are simple low-cost technologies with high impact and this is why design has to be farmer-centric.

An experiment with the hybrid audience proposing a short interactive poll was conducted, from which it appeared that most of the respondents agree with the statements that “small-scale producers may have different ideas of which technologies will work and how” and “small-scale producers have knowledge and experience to contribute to the design of digital CSA solutions”.
The second question to the panelists was on whether this poor adoption of precision agriculture solutions by small farmers is something that should change, and they should adopt them because research shows that these solutions can help with climate change adaptation and mitigation, and if so, who can do something, what is the role of the different actors, and since this discussion is about small-scale farmers, whether they should decide, and we would need a more participatory approach. All speakers answered that yes, this should change, but with slightly different nuances:

  • Thembani answered that yes, this should change, because technologies can help to forecast and farmers can become more resilient if the right information is provided to them
  • Viviana answered yes, but not because farmers "should" adopt and we should just give them the solutions: solutions should be tailored to their situation and their knowledge, and we can learn from successful experiences, as was done in the CA on IDA in LAC, where good practices were identified: inclusive development and early-on co-design; farmers’ association to make solutions scalable and affordable; technologies that exploit tools that farmers already use; offering offline functionalities; accompanying technolgoies with capacity development; using open data.
  • Heitor answered yes, but not in the sense that because  SSPs are vulnerable we have all the answers and we just help them: SSP, indigenous people, local communities are indeed vulnerable and marginalized, BUT they have the highest potential for socio-ecological resilience: the traditional / territorial knowledge that is needed for climate change adaptation and mitigation; and sociological resilience: collective, policentric governance. Innovation should have harmonious dialogue with this traditional knowledge.
  • Irish answered yes, but related examples of cases when solutions did not work out, like a platform to connect farmers and market actors, with subscription to be paid monthly, while farmers' income varies over the year: the pricing model had not been tailored to the reality of the farmers. Top-down innovation has further marginalized SSPs. In a survey they conducted in the context of the CA on IDA, the top three challenges for SSPs in adopting digital solutions are connectivity, affordability, and capacities. Policy makers, private providers and development partners have to consider all of this and invest in inclusive digital solutions.

The discusssion was closed with an invitation to follow and participate in the ongoing conversations in the contex of the GFAR Collective Action on Inclusive Digital Agriculture.

© 2007 - 2023 Valeria Pesce
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