Key message 1 – Information barriers can prevent the uptake of agricultural technologies.
Farmers make multiple decisions in the agricultural cycle about the adoption of products and practices. Research has identified that throughout this cycle, a number of informational challenges can hinder agricultural technology adoption. First of all, for adoption to occur, farmers need to know that a technology exists, believe that it will improve productivity, and understand how to use it effectively.1
Donors, governments, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), and other institutions have made significant investments over the past few decades in programmes and campaigns aimed at disseminating agricultural information to farmers. However, the traditional models used to spread advice to farmers, such as agricultural extension services, are expensive and often ineffective. At the same time, there is great potential for improved models of agriculture extension and information-sharing to help build agricultural productivity, including innovative solutions using mobile technologies.
Emerging research suggests a number of strategies to strengthen the effectiveness of information provision as a tool to facilitate technology adoption:
- Information should be accurate and tailored to individual farmers: It is important for farmers to be provided with reliable advice about appropriate technology solutions specific to their situation. This includes considering how the crops, weather conditions, market prices, and other aspects of the local context may affect the profitability of a technology. New systems using satellite weather data and market price data have promise for delivering information and advice specific to local needs (Biffis and Chavez, 2017).
- Information providers should be rewarded for success: Trainers should be incentivised to effectively disseminate information; feedback and rewards for reaching goals can help to motivate better performance (BenYishay and Mobarak, 2014; Jones and Kondylis, 2015). In cases where information can be considered a ‘public good’, the public sector may be best placed to disseminate it. In other cases, the private sector may be better placed with natural incentives to provide information and marketing on new agricultural technologies.
- Information provision interventions should focus on overcoming behavioural biases: Training and information can be particularly useful in cases where behavioural barriers prevent farmers from reaping the benefits of new agricultural practices or technologies (Duflo, 2011). Psychological blockages may include procrastination, forgetfulness, lack of self-control, or risk aversion.
- Information should come from credible sources: Farmers may be more likely to follow agricultural advice when it comes from multiple people within their social network or from people like themselves, according to research in Malawi and Kenya (BenYishay and Mobarak, 2014; Beaman et al. 2015; Tjernstrom, 2015). Individuals who are well-connected and respected within the community may be good candidates to engage as trainers or agents promoting improved agricultural inputs.
- Information should be new: Training efforts should focus on information farmers are unlikely to figure out on their own, such as new crops, new technologies, or other difficult-to-observe lessons (Cole and Fernando, 2016; Hanna et al., 2014). Efforts to spread information to farmers in Mozambique about the nutritional benefits of orange-fleshed sweet potatoes are one example (Jenkins et al., 2015). There is a stronger need for training when technologies are very complicated, different from the status quo, or prone to misuse.
- Information should be accessible and targeted to the right populations: Special efforts may be required to make information more accessible to certain groups such as women or the poor, who tend to face greater information access barriers. Interestingly, there is some suggestive evidence that female extension workers may be more effective in disseminating information to female farmers (World Bank, 2012). Information-sharing solutions using mobile technologies may need to address issues of inequality in mobile access and usage among different groups.
- Information must come at the right time: Information on new technologies available should ideally come at the moment when it can be most effective in changing practices. For instance, a recent study found that offering maize fertiliser to Kenyan farmers right after the harvest – when they had cash on hand – increased adoption by 11–14 percentage points relative to an intervention offering the fertiliser at planting time (Duflo, 2011). Other research has found that providing timely agricultural information via mobile phones can help to change farmers’ behaviours and increase yields (Cole and Fernando, 2016 – see box on next page).
This brief focuses on informational barriers that can inhibit agricultural technology adoption. Numerous other barriers to agriculture technology adoption are not covered in this brief, including inefficiencies in the markets for land, labour, credit, and insurance (Jack, 2013). An important caveat here is that while information is an important part of the solution, it alone may be insufficient to improve farmer livelihoods in the face of other obstacles like high transport costs or credit constraints. Evidence comparing the relative importance of each of these barriers is limited and there is a need for further research across barriers.
SMS advice for farmers in India
Recent research in India tested the impacts of a mobile-phone based service that provided cotton farmers with access to agricultural consulting via a toll-free hotline and sent weekly agricultural information on weather and crop conditions via an automated voice message.
The study revealed a high demand for agricultural advice services, with 80% of the farmers calling the hotline within the two-year period of the study. The average farmer made 20 calls and used the service for over 2.5 hours. Farmers with access to the service were more likely to adopt practices and agricultural inputs recommended by the service, including higher-value cash crops and more effective and less harmful pesticides, and achieved higher yields.
It also revealed evidence of a “digital divide” in India with systematic differences in adoption and use of the service, including lower usage by poorer, less education farmers, even though it was designed to be accessible to an illiterate population.
Surprisingly, although it was estimated that each dollar spent on the service yielded a $10 return, farmers’ willingness to pay for the service was low, at roughly $2 for a 9-month subscription that costs $7 to provide, suggesting a potential role for subsidies to promote technology adoption (Cole and Fernando, 2016).