Significant potential demonstrated by digital agricultural advice

December 12, 2019

Boston, MA, USA -- 6 December 2019 The near ubiquitous penetration of mobile phones among smallholder farmers in developing countries has enabled a powerful new tool for dispensing agricultural advice to farmers. Low acquisition and marginal costs make digital extension scalable at low cost when compared to traditional in person extension practices.

A new paper co-authored by Nobel Prize winner and Precision Agriculture for Development (PAD) co-founder, Michael Kremer, and his colleagues Raissa Fabregas (University of Texas) and Frank Schilbach (MIT), published today in Science, demonstrates that practices recommended through digital extension are adopted at rates that compare well with those adopted through the course of traditional in-person extension practices, and at significantly lower cost.

The paper emphasizes the research utility implicit in digital extension and the potential for research and experimentation to further improve the impact of digital advisory systems and the advice it delivers: "Running these systems at scale allows for testing variations... and feedback loops to improve accuracy and effectiveness of messages over time". The authors posit that realizing the "full promise of digital agriculture... will require sustained cycles of iteration and testing".

Dr. Tomoko Harigaya, PAD's Chief Economist and Director of Research, remarked that "Understanding the impact of an agricultural intervention can be challenging because of a large fluctuation in agricultural outcomes across seasons. This paper provides an extremely useful insight on the potential value of digital agricultural extension services by taking stock of the existing experimental evidence and highlighting unexploited opportunities for digital interventions. The impact estimates, with the declining marginal cost of service per farmer PAD has seen, suggest a very high benefit-cost ratio of digital extension. As PAD continues to scale, innovate, and iterate, we see huge opportunities to enhance our impact and the inclusiveness of our services."

Shawn Cole, Co-Founder of PAD, and John G. McLean Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, reflected that, "PAD's mission is to design, evaluate, and assist with the scaling of mobile phone based agricultural advice to help smallholder farmers. This paper suggests there is potential for tremendous welfare by delivering mobile phone-based advice to improve farmers' lives, though it also shows there is significantly more research and development to be done. Two things in particular excite me about the potential: first, trusted high-quality advice could change behavior in a number of important domains (e.g., health, education, etc.); and second, the unique value of digital delivery--it can reach anywhere, including conflict areas; and at scale may have close to zero marginal cost."

Precision Agriculture for Development (PAD) is a global non-profit organization that harnesses technology, data science and behavioral economics to provide targeted information to farmers in developing countries to improve their lives. By providing actionable information to the right people, in the right way and at the right time, PAD empowers smallholder farmers to improve their productivity, increase their profitability, and advance environmental sustainability. PAD is pioneering a new model for agricultural extension: delivering to farmers personalized agricultural advice through their mobile phones. PAD implements this model in collaboration with partner organizations to maximize scale, and we continuously experiment, iterate, and gather evidence on impact to improve our services and demonstrate value. PAD currently works in seven countries in Africa and Asia and is rapidly expanding as more governments and organizations look for innovative ways to utilize new technologies to deliver actionable information to people who need it. PAD aims to empower 100 million farmers in developing countries to improve their lives. At the end of the third quarter of 2019, PAD had reached 2.9 million farmers through a range of services providing tailored information on optimizing multiple crops, pest management, input utilization and environmental stewardship.

PAD's senior leadership team draws on years of experience working in and studying agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, business, development economics and behavioral economics, technology, data science, and monitoring and evaluation. PADs co-founders and board members are 2019 Nobel Laureate for Economic Sciences Michael Kremer (Harvard University), Shawn Cole (Harvard Business School), Daniel Björkegren (Brown University), and Heiner Baumann (PAD). PAD is led by Chief Executive Officer Owen Barder, who brings to the organization more than three decades of experience as a development practitioner, scholar and advocate.

Media Contact:

Jonathan Faull
Director of Communications
Precision Agriculture for Development

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