Beyond the Technology Fix
Most of the world’s poor live in rural areas, lack connections to information, and have limited access to many goods and services. In these contexts, small technological improvements can have transformative effects. Nevertheless, rates of technology adoption among the rural poor are often very low.
What technologies are we talking about?
As one might suspect, technologies that improve and support farming practices provide the most immediate benefit to poor, smallholder farmers. These technologies include more advanced tools and equipment (such as production equipment and irrigation systems), enhanced farm management practices (such as no-till methods, terracing and crop rotation), and improved inputs (such as drought-resistant or disease-resistant seeds and improved fertilizers and pesticides).
Traditionally, new technologies have been introduced through public sector agricultural extension agents who deliver technical information to smallholders. Poorly trained agents often fail to address smallholders’ underlying attitudes towards technology and are unable to capture the farmers’ interest. Strengthening the market system to support the effective introduction of new (and often income-bolstering) agricultural technologies has been largely overlooked.
The Leveraging Economic Opportunities project (LEO) reviewed close to 100 reports, research documents and other publications on agriculture-related technology adoption. We wanted to answer the questions: What are key incentives for technology adoption? How do we scale up adoption? The results of this effort culminated in a report: Applying a Market Systems Lens to Technology Scale Up.
Successful strategies to incentivize the adoption and scaling of new agricultural technologies in low-income markets focus on the business model more than on the technology itself. Reaching low-income farmers with inconsistent access to small amounts of cash requires a different business model than reaching farmers in middle-income markets. We discovered that technology adoption by low-income farmers is higher if they are already used to paying for a good or service (even if it is only very poor quality). In Kenya, for example, M-PESA replaced pre-existing expensive and insecure transfers of cash.
Additionally, new technologies are more readily accepted when there is a local, market-driven design and adaptation process. In Indonesia, a collaborative approach to testing innovation, experimentation and scaling between academics and community members resulted in adoption of a range of technologies to spur economic development throughout the region. It is also important to strengthen local capacity to service and repair any new technologies by training local repair people and improving distribution systems to ensure availability of local parts.
Leveraging community champions and networks can be very effective in supporting scalable adoption of new technologies. For example, local businesses providing agricultural technologies may target rural smallholders who are seen as more successful by their peers in order to drive adoption and technology improvements. Firms may also ensure that local leaders, such as religious, political and educational leaders, are adequately informed about new technologies. It’s often said that impersonal marketing methods (like advertising and media stories) may spread information about new innovations, but it is conversations that spread adoption!
In terms of the technology itself, certain product features appear to drive adoption at scale. These include low capital requirements, the ability to share technologies among users, ease of use, and guaranteed access to new markets. These factors contributed to the uptake of the KickStart human-powered irrigation pump, which requires a comparatively low capital outlay relative to similar irrigation systems. The pump is often shared among users and is easy for both men and women to use. In another successful case, potato farmers in India were willing to adopt drip irrigation systems introduced by PepsiCo because the company ensured a guaranteed market for their potatoes.
Too often, technology adoption strategies focus purely on the technological solution as a silver bullet in and of itself. We recognize the significant potential in strengthening market systems that support the uptake and adaptation of new technologies as they emerge. We hope that you’ll share your thoughts with us on this topic in the comments section below!