The use of Information and Communication Technologies in African countries is increasing and is playing a huge role in rural development. We spoke with Elisabetta Demartis, founder of Italian start-up Agritools, about discovering the real effects of the use of ICTs through sharing stories of young African tech savvies that want to bring agriculture to the next level. 'We show policy makers that there is something going on in Africa and that youths need support from them'.
When the first mobile phone operator was licensed in Kenya in 1999, nobody expected the impact the technology would have. Mostly used for sending SMS, the arrival of the mobile phone disrupted many levels of African society and has had a revolutionising effect on communications. Research predicts that the use of the internet on smartphones in the next four years will increase 20-fold on the African continent compared to 2014. The agricultural sector benefits from this technological development as well. As a farmer, being able to stay connected to market prices and customers is crucial, and unimaginable without a mobile phone nowadays. Local start-ups try to make agriculture more inclusive by trying to exploit technology's full potential.
By combining research, journalism and advocacy, Agritools wants to discover how farmers and innovators use ICTs in order to create a new kind of network. Their target group roughly consists of youngsters between 26 and 30 years old, who just finished university and are involved in an up-and-coming start-up. As part of a larger movement called ICTforAg (ICT for Agriculture,) – a 'digital springboard' consisting of numerous initiatives worldwide – the journalistic project of Agritools contains in-depth research including face-to-face interviews.
With a grant from the European Journalism Centre, the four team members behind Agritools travelled through Africa. They have contact with research institutes, map all of their materials in an interactive map shown on their website, document stories of individuals and start-ups in Africa leading in ICT, and publish stories written by these individuals themselves on their online blog. As a moving target, chasing new technological innovation in Africa requires a lot of intensive research and time. But that doesn't stop Elisabetta from continuing her journey, which has already given her many other ideas for the future such as including the help of local journalists from the region.
How did you come up with the idea of Agritools?
Elisabetta: 'Everything started last year. I was a fellow researcher at the university where I studied development economics. They gave me a scholarship to go to Senegal to report happenings in the field of innovation. Thanks to many links between my university and Senegal, my professor sent me there to explore technological novelties.
In Senegal I realised that the focus needs to be on agriculture. It is the most important sector in Africa, since many people survive by working in it. And at the same time many ideas are developed by local youth that are not known. So I started to research startups in Senegal and realised it was really interesting. There are so many parts to analyse, so many youth who are really engaged. But since these start-ups are emerging in other countries as well, I said: this is a topic that can be very useful in order to understand what other youth are doing in agriculture.
What about trying to open this information to everyone? Why don't I try to discover successful stories in a journalistic project that maps and documents what local people are doing and what goes on in their minds? And do it not through a European NGO but keep everything local instead. I wrote a concept and got a trust from the European Journalism Center. Then my adventure started, in November last year.'
How does Agritools find local initiatives in Africa working with ICTs and how do you approach them?
'Since last year I have spent six months doing research in this field. So I had the time and possibility to study and map the best initiatives. I used different channels to approach people, like social media, to use informal networks to get in touch with local organisations. But also publications and reports from the most important organisations working in the field of agriculture and ICT such as the Worldbank; the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO); and the Technical Center for Agriculture (CTA) in the Netherlands.
I realised that Senegal, Kenya, Uganda and Ghana were the most developed countries in respect to ICT and agriculture. There are many more local projects than I expected. While travelling through rural zones, we met many new people and ended up collecting much more material than we were able to edit. In many cases I used a broker or a kind of intermediary person that I know through CTA and FAO for instance, to get in touch with local individuals. It was helpful to start approaching people months in advance to make it easier when I arrived. But the people are just very open and ready to share their experiences. And one of the reasons for this is that they are youths like me. [Going] through an institution, I don't think I would have received the same answers. We were not like journalists who want to catch stories to discover the drama. Instead we created a kind of trust with the people, a relationship through peer-to-peer work. That is why we spent almost one month in every country. Because we wanted to have the time to get close to people and to discover all the aspects of their work.'
Could you give an example of an impressive story you've documented?
'Oh that is hard, I can give you many examples! But I will tell you about one from Senegal. Through my university research last year, I got to know a group of women my age, 28, who started the first tech organisation for women in Senegal. They train women in ICT with a focus on agriculture. They launched a web platform called Sooretul that promotes local products traditionally processed by women. You can easily find jam produced in France, but not even the jam made locally, so you will rarely find local products in the supermarket in Senegal. The platform of Sooretul is great because they try to make the Senegalese informal economy is a very novel thing in Senegal!'
How do people react to being documented?
'They are happy because they see the opportunity to gain visibility. They start to understand that what they are doing is valuable for others to hear about – also outside the agricultural sector. And I think there is a will to share. We have come to an understanding that if we want to improve our work we should not just innovate but as well learn about how we innovate in order to teach others. Therefore Agritools creates a network to put all these youths in contact, to learn from each other.'
What could Agritools contribute to positive change for the agricultural sector in Africa?
'The farmers can benefit from many new innovative ideas that match innovation and tradition. They should trust the youth by explaining what local problems are in order to find a solution with the help of ICT. The youth on the other hand, can learn from what is being done in another part of the country and discover what kind of problems are solved locally. By learning from one another, they could replicate what is done somewhere else.
So Agritools is here to enable people to replicate solutions to similar problems elsewhere and find a new solution to their problem locally. And this has already happened. A group of Malian women wrote that they were looking for a similar group to Sooretul in Senegal. They created a similar group in Mali. This is a concrete follow up that I can see from Agritools.'
What are the future prospects?
The next steps would be to develop the crowdsourcing part and put all the content in an interactive map. We want people be able to bring in stories themselves. I want to create a group of local journalists and involve local African media outlets with Agritools in order to think about the stories to have more influence on the African public. Now I am looking for financial support but it is hard to find resources. I applied for another fund from the European Journalism Centre but I have to wait. We are looking now for another way to get money. In the meantime I will still work on the Agritools platform, looking for other resources.
We want to [bridge] the gap between agriculture and technology because in both fields there are so many possibilities. Together with Sooretul, we have the idea to start an agribusiness open space to incubate and develop business ideas for youth in agriculture. Many youths are busy with it but do not have a physical space or [someone] mentoring them. [They] have ideas but don't know how to develop them. So we want to go from merely journalist research to something concrete for another project, you see.
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Instead of bringing technological development into African countries, Agritools shows that development is already starting locally. I think initiatives such as Agritools, that believe in a young and innovative generation on the move to make agriculture and ICT more inclusive, are worthwhile to keep an eye on. If you think you can contribute or support Agritools, you can contact them through Facebook or the website.&
TIMES Pieces is an ongoing editorial series on RESET.org where we speak with people who are employing TIMES principles (Telecommunications, IT, Mobile, E-Commerce, Service Provider) for social and environmental good. Read more in the series: TIMES Pieces