The Managing Director of Agronomy Technology Limited (ATL), Neill Stewart, tends to cast a cautious eye on initiatives his organization signs up for. As such, and after six years of work in the region, ATL tends to focus primarily on private sector, technology-based, agricultural projects which require intensive data-collection exercises, often over large areas of scrutiny. Subsequently, ATL’s work is always results-based and profit-driven.
So when contemplating partnership with a public-sector agricultural development initiative, such as UK aid’s Malawi Oilseed Sector Transformation (MOST) programme, Stewart was indeed cautious. Was it really possible to significantly enhance agricultural efficiencies through technology, in a country where only 2 to 3 per cent of the population enjoys regular internet access? What were the realistic chances for making significant impacts to the agricultural sector? And, how could capacity be grown so agricultural officers would effectively utilize this technology? These were just a few of the questions that had Stewart listless when considering the project.
‘It’s been a challenge to say the least’, the M.D. reflects. ‘Implementing technology-based tools in southern Africa can be very difficult due to inadequate communications and electricity infrastructures, as well as limited human resource capacities. There are a lot of ways a project can be impeded or worse.’ he adds. ‘However, as we came across challenges to implementation, the technology frequently offered a means of overcoming these challenges. It’s been an evolutionary process, no doubt about it.’
The technology Stewart refers to, and the project surrounding it, is the ‘Tablet Based Seed Inspection App’, which is expected to transform Malawi’s approach to the certified commercial seed market. The initiative aims to do this by arming seed inspectors with tablets that deliver ‘real-time’, or, ‘near-real-time’ seed inspection data to central monitors at Malawi’s Seed Services Unit (SSU), as well as private-sector seed suppliers.
Why this data demands ‘real-time’ delivery centers around the issue of seed production organizations whose commercially grown products may inadvertently be contaminated with what is classified as ‘off-type’ seed – a plant species of a very similar variety, but not exactly the same as what the supplier has advertised. As such, only a minimum of off-type product is permitted in each seed crop for the yield to be considered certified. Uncertified seed can drastically reduce commercial farmers yield quality, size, and ultimately their bottom line – leaving both the farmer’s family – and potentially the country – hungry. So catching anomalies quickly, before yields mature, is a very real concern.
Realizing this was a significant impediment to the seed supply market, MOST, in partnership with the Malawian Government, came together with ATL to develop an ‘app’ which could deliver efficiencies to the seed inspection process. Requirements for the app included detailed inspection guidance for the seed inspector, both in terms of what to look for, and how to look for it.
However, and perhaps of more importance, was the app’s capability to provide reliable methods of collecting AND delivering data – thereby eliminating age-old paper processes which have never proven to be very effective. Oh, and the software had to do this almost immediately, and in areas where mobile phone coverage is often limited or simply does not exist – to say nothing of internet access…
ATL set to work on these issues, and has come up with innovative approaches to mitigating a number of challenges experienced. For example, in order to capitalize on existing infrastructures, the app connects to GSM mobile phone services for internet access, which are only sometimes prevalent in the country. However, when GSM is not available, the app holds the data and patiently waits for a connection – days to weeks if necessary. Once a connection to the mobile phone network finally happens, the app connects to the internet, and data is transferred to servers at SSU and/or seed supplier organizations. Hence the advent of ‘near-real-time’ data.
Even the utilization of an app approach is proving to be innovative – and effective. Unfortunately, computer literacy is not enjoyed by a majority of Malawians, and so the introduction of digital solutions do not always deliver as intended. However, smart phones are seemingly everywhere in the country. So exploiting a technology many Malawians are comfortable with means that user reliability is much more likely, and so successful implementation is more realistic.
Currently training for 35 seed inspectors, from both SSU and the private-sector, has taken place as the project begins to gain momentum. Even more excitingly, piloting of between 20 to 25 tablets will begin throughout the country over the 2016 to 2017 growing period. Things are beginning to move indeed…
And Neill Stewart still remains cautious about the venture, with a wait-and-see approach. However, optimism is beginning to grow for what the project has to offer Malawi. ‘Streamlining communications between the local and the central offers real potential for proactive and reactive measures.’ Stewart reflects. ‘It also allows observers to appropriately gauge for a projected market, putting Government in a position to respond as needed. This type of technology has a lot to offer the Malawian agricultural sector. Better still, if it works for the agricultural sector who knows what it might do for Malawi in general. There is a great deal of potential. We are optimistic this could deliver real impact’ the M.D. adds.
And Mr. Stewart is correct, real potential exists. However, for this technology to succeed it will take more than tablets, apps and real-time data to connect over long distances. For this technology to realize its potential it will require a commitment from all of the many stakeholders to see the value of innovation. Yes, for this project to succeed it will necessitate innovation in the way business is conducted.