In and out of the last 10 miles — New equations of the agricultural infoconomy

    Presentation speakers
    Rolf de By, Theme leader for the field of Spatial Data Infrastructure - Technology, Faculty of Geo-Information Science and Earth Observation of the University of Twente (ITC)

    Many Sub-Saharan societies are rapidly changing, after an impressive number of years of economic growth that has made the northern world envious. The changes are of a firm socio-technical fabric, in which the technology spurt of the digital age is paired with a new awareness, even redefinition, of societal responsibilities. On that fabric, exciting, African-grown innovations are erupting that serve in sensible ways the needs of that modernizing society. We will look at examples of these developments and try sketch an informed picture of a future sub-Saharan society.

    Agriculture provides the economic foundation of any society’s early development curve, and this is fundamentally still the case for many African societies. A lot of change is in the air; some of that change holds promise, and some of it is threatening. The promises for African agriculture are in a growing domestic urban market and in the international market. Wal-Mart, Carrefour and Tesco will soon settle prominently on the African continent, bringing in their culture of global supply chain, but also offer possibilities for local feeds. The promises are also in the relatively high availability of unused arable land, and in the current under-exploitation of resources, both material and information resources. The threats are in international trade regulations, bad infrastructure, climate instability, global competition for natural resources, and prominently also in the poor information positions of the main players in the food product chain. Those players explicitly include subsistence farmers and the cooperatives in which they are often organized.

    Successful product chain enterprises pair the materials flow intimately with an information flow that precedes the goods, accompanies them, and allows following until they reach their destination. The digital age is bringing us the technology to think of realizing such product-related information flows also for sub-Saharan agriculture. The pieces are there, or will soon be, and the challenge is in constructing sensible solutions that bring actionable information to the agricultural players. The `last 10 km’ is the metaphor of bringing information even to the farmer and equip her with information that matters, and that allows models of rational choice in farming. In such a physical industry as agriculture, it is no surprise that much of the information is on farm inputs and outputs, and it is thus highly spatial and temporal. We will look at these pieces in some detail.

    Finally, as we continue to develop our understanding that agriculture is becoming an industry of both physical and information products, the power position of farmers is changing. Not only will they remain the physical goods producers, they will also, more and more, become producers of relevant information concerning the production context, which in itself is of value, for what we call the infoconomy. Information volunteered by farmers will allow knowledge sharing amongst them, and will allow us to better calibrate crop production models, and better understand the dependencies of pre- and post-crop logistics. Farmer information will help to inform the conscientious consumer, and may bring the farmer certification; it will, again, be extremely location-specific. It may also help her to negotiate better conditions for micro-finance or micro-insurance. Information will rapidly become a commodity that the farmer also produces, and that empowers her in the infoconomy at the same time.
    We will discuss the equations involved, though they are not simple, and are not one-dimensional either. There are currencies of ability, willingness and trust, as well as privacy at play. And there is the dimension of strategic pathways of choices into a more promising, and more secure future.