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FAO chief emphasizes need for inclusive digital innovation

Director-General, addressing agriculture ministers from around the world, emphasizes need for digital revolution to promote access to new technologies by to work in favor of smallholders

19 January 2019, Berlin -It's time to accelerate innovation in agriculture and to do so in a way that aspires to make a difference to hundreds of millions of people who produce the bulk of the world's food on family farms, FAO Director-General José Graziano da Silva  said today.

"FAO is working with digital innovations, providing new inputs for farmers in rural areas. We need good governance and the right policies to support that, therefore FAO also helps countries access these new technologies to foster digitalization in agriculture," he told agriculture ministers from more than 70 countries and officials from organizations including the World Bank, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and the African Development Bank, gathered for a high-level meeting in Berlin.

Assuring that transformative digital technologies leave no one behind means finding ways to allow rural smallholders, including young people, to tap into them, boost their  productivity and improve their market access, he told the officials attending the Global Forum for Food and Agriculture, which this year focused on the potential of digital technology's contributing to the future of farming.

Digital technologies allow "scale without mass", which can enhance smallholders' access to markets, which is fundamental, he said.

FAO has been promoting the development of digital solutions that can be easily, cheaply and sustainably localized, and in particular is focused on areas such as extension services, meteorological information, pest and disease control, market information, insurance, natural resource management and social protection programmes. Investments that involve youth - as engaged actors rather than only as beneficiaries - is essential, especially in sub-Saharan Africa where population and food needs are growing fast, Graziano da Silva added.

FAO's Director-General also announced that FAO, with the International Fund for Agricultural Development and the World Bank, will start preparing a technical impact assessment on what countries are doing in digitalization, to inform policymakers of the task ahead. "The work will start right away," he said.

What FAO is doing

FAO has numerous initiatives that seek to leverage emerging technologies to tackle smallholder, youth and gender challenges around the developing world.

For example, FAO has pioneered the use of unmanned aerial drones to mitigate risks to agriculture in the Philippines, monitor locust threats and contribute to the advanced forest mapping and monitoring made possible by geospatial platforms such as FAO's OpenForis.

More down to earth, the One Million Cisterns for the Sahel Initiative seeks to facilitate rainwater harvesting and storage schemes to improve local food and nutrition security and enhance access to safe drinking water - all while also boosting local employment and income opportunities -  in a way that has borne fruit in Brazil.

Notably, FAO has rolled out four smartphone apps in Rwanda and Senegal that offer users real-time information on livestock disease control and feeding strategies, nutrition, weather forecasts and cropping calendars, and allows farmers directly to obtain information on market prices for their produce and agricultural inputs. The apps have been tailored with an eye to local conditions such as literacy levels, connectivity rates and local languages.

In response to the arrival in Africa of Fall Armyworm, an invasive species that can ravage essential food crops such as maize, FAO has been quick to introduce an app allowing farmers to upload information from their fields to bolster early warning systems and strategies, and another one that - using voice technology and able to work even when offline - can quickly confirm whether the insect is responsible for crop damage.

Further work has used digital technology in innovative ways to improve the sustainable livelihoods of small-scale fisher communities. FAO has worked directly with the private sector to share the fruits of the digital revolution, notably with Google to make geospatial mapping more accessible to all and with Telefonica to optimize water efficiency and nutrition knowledge in Central America.   

FAO has also held a major conference and hackathon  in Rwanda to encourage local talent to engage in and positively influence the changes of a world undergoing disruption. More than 100 proposals from 22 countries in Africa testify to shared interest and momentum.

Photo: ©FAO/Marco Palombi
Milk procurement managers in Kazakhstan learn how how to use a mobile phone application developed by FAO.

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