What does the dramatic slowdown in global growth of internet access mean for agritech?

Karen Smith avatar


A recent Guardian article reported a dramatic decline in internet access growth suggests digital revolution will remain a distant dream for billions of people.

With a proliferation of technology solutions aimed at improving the livelihoods of poor farmers it is a challenge to evaluate which options are the ones that will really endure and make a lasting difference. NGOs want to find the best digital ways to increase cost-effective support to farmers and improve their ability to monitor performance improvements. Agribusinesses want to increase traceability of the provenance of their products back down to producers. Everyone wants to benefit from mobile money and a reduced need for cash transactions.

I keep a watch of the numerous tech solutions springing up – some excellent and visionary, others quite notably being developed at a distance from the developing contexts that they are hoping to operate in, and others raising funds before working out their commercial business model. It is a buzzy area with grants sloshing around to fund clever ideas, many of which are apps of course. However, as the Guardian’s article notes, access for the poorest consumers to data (and the internet) is plateauing. “Even if they can afford the mobile phone and data costs, they may lack the skills to go online”. It is also worth noting that a good proportion of this population will unfortunately be illiterate.

So one consideration – perhaps the first – for NGOs, development projects and agri-organisations to make when working out what sort of digital opportunities could enhance the lives of smallholder farmers is: do they have smartphones on which to use apps? Do enough of them have access to phones at all to rely on direct-to-user services?

Despite the fact that access to phones / smartphones remains limited in rural developing countries, data provision can be surprisingly good (given mobile technology has leapfrogged landlines). This means that cloud-based platforms such as Smallholdr can operate effectively, storing information on local devices and uploading when data is available. While agronomic information direct to farmers is definitely a useful channel, I think that in many instances the use of extension workers to intermediate with a great digital platform will remain the best way to engage with and train smallholders for some time to come.