Thomas Daum is a research fellow at the Hans Ruthenberg Institute of Agricultural Sciences in the Tropics at the University of Hohenheim, Germany.
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Mobile services and smartphone apps, so-called m-services, can help to empower farmers with information and access to services and markets. But we should not neglect looking at their downsides. Strengthening farmers requires far more than just smart digital tools, our author maintains.

Imagine a smallholder farmer in Zambia – let’s call her Rhoda. Every morning, Rhoda feeds her cows following the advice of an app on her smartphone. She then feeds her children, again listening to an app. Once the children are at school, she plants maize. An app has told her when to do that. The same app has suggested her the type of seeds to be used and will later tell her when to apply fertiliser.

One can read the story of Rhoda with excitement. Perhaps rightly so – after all, don’t all these apps help Rhoda to be a better farmer? But one may also read it feeling concerned. The story of excitement has been repeated many times, so let’s take a concerned perspective here. Rhoda readily follows the advices of her apps. This raises two questions. How good are such advices? And more fundamentally, how do we envisage future farmers to be?

The crucial issue is how trustworthy the recommendations are that the farmers receive via their smartphones. Eduardo Nakasone and Maximo Torero have reviewed many of these apps and come to mixed conclusions. Clearly, the consequences of bad advice become bigger the more far reaching m-services envision to be. The International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics, ICRISAT is currently developing an app that promises to guide farmers through the entire farm season. For example, using algorithms and artificial intelligence, farmers are recommended, what to plant. Based on their decision the next steps are suggested, such as what fertiliser to use. This is reminiscent of the 1960s and 1970s, when experts thought they knew more about farming than local farmers, which often led to disastrous results. Today, our hope again lies in the knowledge of experts, this time combined with algorithms and artificial intelligence. The ICRISAT app aims to consider local elements.

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