Last month, I was in Dhaka, Bangladesh with my colleagues hosting an event on “Exploring Agriculture Innovations in Bangladesh to Improve Food Security” on behalf of Feed the Future’s Developing Local Extension Capacity (DLEC) program, which Digital Green leads in collaboration with the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), CARE International (CARE) and the Global Forum for Rural Advisory Services (GFRAS). Bangladesh is one of the countries in which DLEC is operating to measurably improve extension programs, policies and service delivery by creating locally tailored, partnership-based solutions and by mobilizing active communities of practice to scale this work. The event in Dhaka was one such community event, and invited representatives from development, research, donors, government and the private sector with an interest in leveraging (mostly digital) technology to strengthen the agricultural extension system in Bangladesh. The number and caliber of attendees exceeded our expectations, and the level of dialogue about and enthusiasm for digital innovations was inspiring. This event made it clear to me that there’s a real opportunity to transform extension in Bangladesh.
I asked myself what is it about Bangladesh’s enabling environment that makes it so ready for this digital revolution? According to the 2016 analysis that DLEC conducted of the extension and advisory services environment in the country, “information and communication technologies (ICTs) and digitization are already viewed [by key actors in the country] as important tools to extending extension’s reach.” Furthermore, the government has introduced initiatives such as Digital Bangladesh, to digitize systems and structures down to the smallest rural administrative and local governments over the next three years, demonstrating a conscious effort to overcome the digital divide as a means of lifting people out of poverty. Additionally, there are over 118 million mobile phone subscribers; in a country with a population of 163 million, this is an exciting opportunity to connect people to each other and to the services and information they need. There is a growing momentum to design tools that leverage digital access to reach and empower more people to improve their lives, as evidenced by the numerous recognized digital projects in agriculture in Bangladesh, such as the A-Card digital finance solution for farmers from AESA, the remote-sensing technology for water management from CIMMYT and the Farmer Query System that uses smartphone pictures to diagnose plant disease from mPower.
I am really excited that DLEC is contributing to this revolution, in conjunction with the USAID Agricultural Extension Support Activity (AESA) Project, by launching Digital Green’s farm-to-market aggregation and transport service in Bangladesh. Under the program, farming communities select a farmer leader/aggregator, who coordinates with peer farmers to arrange transportation based on the quantity of crops harvested and provides critical market information, such as commodity prices. The aggregator uses a mobile application for record keeping and provides SMS receipts to his fellow farmers for transparency. Thus far, we have reached over 2,300 people in 76 villages, creating 30 youth agri-entrepreneurs since the program began in April, and farmers have shown a willingness to pay a portion of both the aggregator and transport costs. (Watch this video to find out more: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I-OMXQxi1NA)
I left Dhaka feeling inspired by all the ground-breaking digital solutions I learned about that are working to strengthen the agricultural sector in the country. Although most of these solutions are being tested only on a small scale and are not well-coordinated, there is evidence of a growing technology sector and encouragement from the government to leverage more ICT tools. The question for me then is, what is our role as organizations that work in agricultural development in coordinating these solutions and encouraging their uptake so we can measurably improve the country’s extension system for smallholder farmers? This is a pivotal time to mobilize this active community and promote the cross-learning of these effective approaches across sectors from public to private, from government to farmer organizations. DLEC can help catalyze the scaling of these proven approaches and leverage the existing enabling environment within Bangladesh, but it will take cooperation among all the actors if we are going to see the emergence of a modern, ICT-enabled extension and advisory service system that creates significant impact in the lives of smallholder farmers. Given the environment in Bangladesh, I think this is achievable and something DLEC will be working towards. What role will your organization play?