Manuel Otero | Digital revolution to tackle COVID-19 and fight rural poverty
Sixteen million family farmers live and work in rural areas in Latin America and the Caribbean. Along with their families, they represent the backbone of the agriculture industry, ensuring the food and nutritional security of the region.
Despite their vital role, most are poor, subsistence farmers, receiving only the most basic of services, who have little or no access to credit and who are overlooked in public policies to foster social development opportunities, progress, and quality employment in rural areas.
The pandemic has enhanced the strategic role of family farming and intensified political and social awareness about its importance. Yet, in the same vein, new obstacles have arisen, restricting these farmers’ access to rural extension services such as the dissemination of technical and health information, which is so critical for improving crop and animal production.
We must, therefore, capitalise on some of these developments on the one hand and confront the others head on. Awareness must be galvanised into action, considering the ability of the agriculture sector to bolster the recovery of economies that have collapsed during the pandemic.
Moreover, extension services should increasingly harness available technology capable of strengthening family farming, increasing its productivity, and generating more income for farmers, taking into account environmental considerations and the socioeconomic vulnerability of this community.
The destruction wrought by COVID-19 has also decimated the traditional extension-services model, and the ensuing crisis should be tackled by expanding the use of digital technologies that provide an opportunity for personalised remote services at a lower cost than the system that has existed for decades.
STRATEGIES TO DISSEMINATE TECHNOLOGY
Even as the agriculture sector can lead the post-pandemic recovery, we should focus on strategies to disseminate technology, expand the telecommunications infrastructure, and facilitate mass access to smart phones.
We can convince governments, companies, and key stakeholders by demonstrating that investments in improvements in rural connectivity will generate increasingly greater returns as seen in Ethiopia, Kenya, and India, in examples presented by Michael Kremer, 2019 Nobel Prize winner for Economics.
This infrastructure will provide the basis for a budding digital agriculture revolution that will enable real-time access to information for decision-making and much more precise information management based on the use of best practices.
This revolution stands to benefit and improve the living conditions of small farmers, women, and young people in rural areas. Digital agriculture, through the intensive use of technological devices, artificial intelligence, and online learning, can tailor relevant information by programming and customising it to meet the needs of individual small farmers.
There will be a need to shift our technology focus and to design easily understood messages to expand the horizons of those who need and consume information: the farmers. Therefore, technical cooperation has a pivotal role to play.
It has been proven that there is a practical side to the mass use of technology: using it to resolve problems in the field with minimal expenditure. This, therefore, is a viable and effective strategy to improve life in rural areas and a question of survival for our increasingly urban societies.
Manuel Otero is director general of the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture.