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How Senegalese Agricultural NGOs Are Adapting Mobile Technologies: Part 1

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This is the first post in a two-part series: “How Senegalese Agricultural NGOs Are Adapting Mobile Technologies,” based on a follow up of over 50 Senegalese agricultural NGOs who attended the U.S. Embassy’s TechCamp Dakar. Here, we provide background and context on mobile technology and agricultural NGOs working in Senegal. In Part 2, we will explore the results of our follow-up survey to find out how NGOs are using mobile technology in their agricultural programming. TechCamp Dakar was a great entry point for Senegalese NGOs to capitalize on one of the major development paradoxes of rural Africa—while many people do not have regular access to electricity or running water, the vast majority has access to mobile phones.

I spent two years as a Peace Corps volunteer working on agricultural projects in a small village of 300 people in a remote area of Senegal, with no electricity or running water. However, I rarely lacked access to communication via my mobile phone.

The villagers around me, like the majority of Senegalese citizens, rely on mobile phones as a main mode of communication. While not all individuals own phones, there is always the ability to borrow one from a family member or friend.

In Senegal, where over 75% of the workforce is dedicated to agriculture, and over 50% of the population lives in rural areas, TechCamp Dakar demonstrated the great potential for NGOs to use mobile technologies in agriculture projects to increase their impact and presence in remote communities.

Most Senegalese farmers work at the subsistence level—they eat most of what they grow—but some grains and garden crops are sold at local markets. Products are transported from rural areas to more urban centers and sold at open air stalls. Prices vary depending on season and supply.

Some farmers do currently use mobile technology to determine current market prices and when to sell crops, but in my experience, this is limited and takes the form of informal networks in which farmers call acquaintances in larger towns and cities to check current prices and decide when to sell crops. This is sporadic and often occurs within days of crops spoiling, thus there is no real option to delay sales for better profit, and most current farming practices do not incorporate informed harvest planning for maximizing profit.

Many of the technologies presented at TechCamp Dakar may offer opportunities for NGOs to address these issues by leveraging mobile technologies in order to tailor agricultural programming to the communities in which they work. By taking advantage of the more efficient and timely means of reaching beneficiaries in remote areas that mobile technology offers, the information gap that farmers, like those in my Peace Corps village, face could be mediated.

How connected are Senegalese NGOs to Internet and mobile technology?

As in much of the developing world, Senegal’s technical know-how is concentrated in the capital city, outside of which there is limited (and expensive) access to the Internet, with most people relying on basic mobile phone services to communicate.

Capital city offices have reasonably reliable access to electricity and the Internet, but as you move farther from the capital to regional and department-level offices, organizations face many challenges when relying on technology to implement work. In cities and towns where local offices are based, there may be frequent electricity blackouts, so a lot of professional communication that NGOs have with their beneficiaries relies on face-to-face contact.

Most attendees at TechCamp were from main offices either based in Dakar or other regional capitals, which oversee operations at more local level offices. The majority of these NGO offices already use technology to some extent in the workplace, although some respondents reported that they did not feel entirely confident using mobile phones and computers during their workdays.

We were interested to learn whether and how the NGO participants choose to apply mobile innovations to their agricultural programming, now and in the future.

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