Can Mobile Phones Help to Improve Food Security?

Around three-fourths of the world’s poorest people live in rural areas. The rural poor, and their very specific needs, must therefore be at the centre of any attempt to tackle global poverty and the issue of food security. But what are these very specific needs? Often they’re things that people in urban areas take for granted – access to certain products or devices, to physical infrastructure, and to new technologies and ideas.

These challenges have a range of negative effects. They can restrict educational opportunities. They can prevent people from getting the healthcare they need. They can also limit agricultural output, meaning the rural poor are often not able to produce the food they need.

A growing body of evidence suggests that information and communication technologies (ICT) – and especially mobile phones – can help address these problems. They open up access to information and training opportunities. For this reason, they can bring about improvements in almost all areas, including health, education, financial services, and agriculture and food security.

Specifically, of the main potential gains in agricultural markets, the most important is market efficiency. For example, through increased access to mobile phones, farmers can better plan how much to plant each season and how much and what type of investments could be profitable based on demand and supply. They can also gather information from extended networks and cooperatives regarding market conditions in higher-end markets and quality standards in those markets. ICTs can also be used to reduce price variability.

Finally, ICTs can also play a role in reducing the three main constraints faced by traditional extension services in developing countries. First, poor infrastructure makes it difficult and costly to visit remote areas. Second, traditional “extension programs” – where specialists travel to remote areas to provide training and support – usually provide only one-off information to farmers; the lack of follow-up and feedback hampers long-term benefits. Finally, traditionally these visits are not always reliable, and there can be a lack of accountability among the people and organizations who provide these visits. ICTs can overcome these problems by reducing the cost of extension visits, enabling more frequent two-way communication between farmers and agents, and improving the accountability of agents.

Some countries are already recognizing the opportunity presented by these technologies, and have put in place subsidies to make them more widely available to underserved rural residents. Their goal has not only been to improve access but also to make sure that rural populations do not pay more for them than their urban counterparts. These subsidies make economic sense – increasing access to ICT has a positive spillover effect on people’s consumption and production. But the schemes are expensive, and many are therefore financially unsustainable.

In Chile and Peru, telecommunication investment funds have been finding creative ways to get around this problem, using a small percentage of the gross operating revenues of existing private operators to pay for subsidies. Other countries should consider this option.

Alternative technologies should also be explored. Broadband technology, for example, can provide access to both data and voice services. This could increase competition in the delivery of services, allowing rural communities to not only catch up with their urban counterparts, but maybe even outperform them in some areas. A dual broadband strategy that deploys wireless broadband networks and promotes the adoption of voice telephony applications targeted at low-income users should be considered. The role that the public and private sectors should each play in rolling out such a strategy also needs to be explored.

But for these technologies to really make a difference, it must be about more than access. As well as connectivity, content is also crucial. I call it the two Cs. The content we are making accessible when we extend connectivity must be relevant, useful and in an easy-to-use format. This content, particularly when it comes to agricultural information and how that can help achieve food security, should be seen as a public good. Governments should invest in providing the best possible information about prices on different markets, produce varieties and quality, as well as production technologies and other agronomic information.

If we invest in increasing access to these technologies – making sure everyone can connect – and in ensuring the content they can access is informative and relevant to their needs – we can provide the rural poor with the tools they need to escape poverty.

This article first appeared on World Economic Forum on October 16, 2014.

(Photo by Neil Palmer/CIAT via Creative Commons)