Q&A: Helping Small-scale Farmers Make the Most of Africa’s Digital Transformation
Africa’s digital transformation presents new opportunities for small-scale farmers who have had limited access to markets for their crops. However, with this transformation comes a growing digital divide that may hinder those opportunities.
Feed the Future ALL-IN principal investigator Khadijat Amolegbe is testing whether digital literacy can connect small-scale farmers in Nigeria to markets to sell their harvests. Amolegbe also leads a project for the Partnership for Economic Policy that examines the gendered effects of climate shocks and crop diversification on food security in Nigeria.
In this Q&A, Amolegbe discusses her research, some challenges of conducting development research in Africa and the bright future for the sector. Amolegbe is a senior lecturer in agricultural economics and farm management at the University of Ilorin, Nigeria, where she received her Ph.D. in 2019. She is also a founding member of the ALL-IN Research Network.
What is some of your current and recent research?
The Feed the Future ALL-IN research is at the preliminary stage. It's an interesting project that I'm very passionate about because I haven't done something of this magnitude before. We have completed the phase which involves identifying the communities across three states and more than 250 eligible communities with internet access. We are now collecting the household baseline data in these communities.
We also carried out qualitative research where we interviewed farmers and other stakeholders. This helped us to design our intervention. Our interest was focusing on the effect of digital literacy in terms of training and giving farmers access to a digital directory.
These interviews revealed that this direction might not be relevant to farmers, so we had to switch to agents. This led to an interest in looking at how local agents will help farmers in listing their products on the digital platform. We plan to have three groups of treated communities, one where we will train farmers, another where we will train only local agents and lastly a community that will have both trainings.
I recently published research that was funded under the STAARS project in collaboration with Cornell University looking at the effect of price shock on food security status, whereby we focused on local and imported rice. Rice is one of the most widely consumed food items in Nigeria, so it's an interesting topic, and a key finding was that the price of imported rice drives the price of the local rice.
This is interesting because in Nigeria at the time the government restricted the import of rice from foreign markets. This was to try and develop the local rice industry. Another interesting finding was that due to high demand the price of imported rice went up at the same time domestic rice prices went up. The key finding that is relevant for policy is that with an increase in the price of rice food security falls.
What have been some of the challenges you have seen as a researcher?
There are a lot of challenges in conducting development research in Africa. The key challenges we faced in our Feed the Future ALL-IN project have been logistical. This is mainly getting enumerators in the field, having them conduct interviews without any security threat, getting farmers to respond to the questions.
Farmers believe the enumerators are coming from the government. Due to a lack of trust in the government, we have to convince farmers that we are there to primarily do research. It takes a lot of convincing, and after giving them an understanding, they become interested in the project and want to learn how to use digital tools. But the skepticism still lurks, given their history with past project managers.
Another challenge we face in this space is getting to connect with policy makers. One solution could be to have frequent networking events where we engage the research community and the policy makers.
Time management is another challenge. In particular for women, especially carving out the time for travel, events, sometimes we just have to be selective on what events to attend due to time. While in this field, one needs to network and travel, so you are at a loss for staying back and staying in your corner.
In the past we encountered funding issues, but now with initiatives like Feed the Future ALL-IN, there is grant support to local researchers, which is very encouraging. Many were leaving academia in Nigeria because they were not encouraged to stay for similar reasons. When there are funding opportunities for researchers, we are willing to work twice as hard.
As a local researcher, with a full education in Nigeria, it usually takes a lot to convince people you are relevant. You have to work twice as hard to prove your worth compared to those carrying international credentials. There are also issues with traveling visas and restrictions, in particular in Nigeria.
How did you get started as a researcher?
My interest has always been on agriculture and agricultural challenges in Nigeria and Africa as a whole. I studied agriculture in my undergraduate. Immediately after, I went for an internship, which is a compulsory program, by the National Youth Service Corps in Nigeria.
I was posted to the Central Bank of Nigeria in the Development Finance Department. My role involved working on government projects at the national stage, including commercial agricultural credit scheme. I also had the opportunity to meet people who were involved in the design of NIRSAL.
I hadn't really been exposed to agricultural economics until then, so through the internship program I learnt a lot, and given that math is something I enjoy, it was a great combination! Afterward I went for my masters in agricultural economics and later my Ph.D.
What does the future look like for development research in Africa?
The dynamic nature of the industry is interesting. There are a lot of changes now, and all are a learning experience. There are new interdisciplinary fields merging to the agricultural economics and development economics sector. We are working and collaborating with people across various sectors and not limited to other researchers.
The research industry is exciting and promising now, as there are more funding opportunities in Africa to African researchers. This comes with the necessary support to help us manage the funding and the activities. Other than funding opportunities, there are also so many events now that are recognizing, local researchers in Africa, and strengthening capacity. One would want to be part of such an event.
The Feed the Future Advancing Local Leadership, Innovation and Networks (ALL-IN) initiative puts researchers at African institutions in the lead on large-scale projects, leveraging their local knowledge, skills and ideas to build actionable evidence for promoting resilience and empowering rural families and communities to share in inclusive agricultural growth.