The Telegraph Interview on the Future of Food

Earlier this year we were interviewed by The Telegraph UK for a longer feature about the future of food and emergent food technologies. The author focused her interviews on the entrepreneurs making lab grown meats or egg substitutes or meals-in-a-glass. But we appeared on her radar for holding views slightly outside the mainline of Silicon Valley thinking. As the article concludes, the Telegraph spotlights our concern that new food technologies may be brought to market in ways that create dependencies, especially in low-income countries. While we are excited about animal proteins that can be produced without damaging the environment and productive new crop lines, we’re conscious of the delicacy of international supply chains and the tempting nature of monopoly control of something as vital as nourishment.

Our own work in the field of food will continue to build food security in vulnerable communities by raising the sophistication of agro-ecological food production methods.

Here’s the science that ‘Interstellar’ really gets wrong.


Science tells us that small-scale organic farming is the future of agriculture, not moncropping: Interstellar gets is wrong. ( Full disclosure, I'm late to the party of discussing Interstellar because I’m working in South East Asia on the future of farming and only just got back to Silicon Valley to help connect technologists with a basic sense of where their solutions are hoping to land. Let’s discuss the so far neglected, especially obnoxious, glaring lo-tech blindspot in “Interstellar.” Whether or not Lincoln McConaughey should’ve been pulped in the wormhole, this movie full of imagination and vision about the future shows a braindead disregard for agriculture, or, if it helps: ecosystem design.

The idea that someone would be called a “good farmer” for monocropping GMO corn with robots after 6 billion people have paid the price of mismanaging Earth is tougher to swallow than the idea that 80 years pass between the first space mission and the second, and the same exact size and type of robot is deployed in the new space ship.

That robotic oversight is a bit lazy and kind of cute because “Interstellar” is part of the decades-old trend of movies that normalize extending empathy to robots. But the failure to imagine a healthy relationship with future Earth derives from an entirely unscientific disdain: “We used to look up at the sky and wonder at our place in the stars. Now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt.” We do? Because we look at the dirt now, and when we do, we don’t monocrop corn with robots.

There are people transforming acres next to the Dead Sea into oases. Flyblown deadzones the size of France are being turned into fertile, breathtaking and productive regions. This is not happening with industrial additives, robots or monocropping. Nor does it require the sort of water waste that would’ve made “Interstellar’s” endless corn fields flourish.

There are pioneer species that can cling to desert cliffs overlooking the ocean, accreting the moisture and topsoil to support edible plants. Even in the case of a gloomy dust storm, we know how to engineer wind breaks out of local plant species on any continent that would create massive pockets of protected fertility. But any one who looks at the dirt must lack initiative, or at least social status. That’s why we are meant to leave Earth, right?

Look. I work on the NASA campus in Silicon Valley four months of the year because I love space exploration and believe deeply in the value of exponential technologies. But I work in Africa and South East Asia the rest of the time because I love Earth. And in all cases, I like thoughtful, strategic, sustainable approaches to making life better. This movie’s future vision of how we manage our environment belongs in the late 1940s when the same brutalist approach to farming started pushing us towards the dystopic conditions that make Interstellar so desperate.

How Senegalese Agricultural NGOs Are Adapting Mobile Technologies: Part 2


Welcome back. This is the second 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. The first provided background and context on mobile technology in rural Senegal. Here, we explore the results of our follow-up survey to find out how NGOs are using mobile technology in their agricultural programming.

Three months after TechCamp Dakar, CODE surveyed 30 participants to learn whether and how Senegalese agricultural NGOs were actively incorporating mobile innovations into their agricultural programming. Most organizations have more than one agriculture-related focus, with the highest concentration of work being in the following areas (see Fig. 1):

  • Working with women (83.3%);
  • Training and education (75%);
  • Building the capacity of farmers to maximize crop sales (70.8%);
  • Market access and commercial issues (70.8%);
  • Supplying seeds, tools, fertilizer, et cetera (62.5%).

Fig. 1:

Graph: What Are The Agricultural Areas that Your Organization Focuses On?
Graph: What Are The Agricultural Areas that Your Organization Focuses On?

We were also curious as to how organizations are using ICT and mobile technologies in the workplace to coordinate programs and communicate with partners. Most organizations already use computer technology in the workplace, mostly for data collection, sharing, reporting, and communication.

As you can see in Fig. 2, within organizations, most communication happens via e-mail (all organizations use e-mail), telephone, and in-person conversation. SMS, Facebook, and Twitter are used much less, which represents an opportunity for these NGOs to communicate with and reach a wider base of beneficiaries and supporters.

Fig. 2:

Graph: How Do You Communicate Within Your Organization?
Graph: How Do You Communicate Within Your Organization?

We found that organizations already use technology to communicate with those who benefit from their projects -- beneficiaries from urban citizens in Dakar to rural, smallholder farmers living across the country.

Fig. 3 shows that most communication between organizations and beneficiaries is via telephone. In fact, all the organizations we interviewed use telephone to communicate with their beneficiaries. In-person communication and email were also common outreach tools, but SMS and Facebook barely made this list.

Fig. 3:

Graph: How Do You Communicate with Beneficiaries and Receive Field Data?
Graph: How Do You Communicate with Beneficiaries and Receive Field Data?

Currently, most organizations communicate with beneficiaries several times a month (see Fig. 4), but an overwhelming majority (56.5%) wish to communicate with beneficiaries every day.

Fig. 4:

Graph: Actual and Desire Beneficiary Communication
Graph: Actual and Desire Beneficiary Communication

These results show that mobile technologies do play a part in current agricultural programming, although we found that the application of new mobile technologies is limited so far. It seems that NGO staff fieldworkers may use computer and phone technology at their office, but there is a lack of agriculture-based projects that rely on the use of mobile technology at the very local (for example, village) level.

Since TechCamp, about half the organizations have begun to explore new technologies, such as low-cost video, Frontline SMS, Mobile Money, GoogleApps, and mapping technologies, and find that learning such technologies on their own is often a complicated and confusing task.

“We used computers before TechCamp, just for administration, but not as a tool for amplifying work. TechCamp has allowed us to have a large vision, but we struggle to implement this.” - Mandiaye Pety Badj, Community Manager at Enda Graf Sahel.

Mandiaye exemplifies the experience of most of the interviewed NGOs in regards to their experience implementing new TechCamp technologies.

For those who haven’t begun to use TechCamp technologies yet, all plan to integrate them into programming to a higher degree in 2013 or after receiving further training in methods of application for each technology.

All organizations expressed the need for further training before they can successfully implement new TechCamp technologies. However, all organizations surveyed express a desire to implement mobile technologies in their workplace and agriculture programming in the future.

There is a general consensus amongst Senegalese NGOs that TechCamp was beneficial in that it brought like-minded organizations together and started the dialogue as to what these new technologies are and how they can be used. NGOs stated that the new technologies most relevant to agricultural programming are, in order of most to least (see Fig. 5): Frontline SMS, low-cost video, GoogleApps, and OpenStreetMap.

Fig. 5:

Graph: Which TechCamp Technologies Are Most Likely To Be Useful For Your Projects?
Graph: Which TechCamp Technologies Are Most Likely To Be Useful For Your Projects?

As you see in Fig. 6, most organizations expressed interest in applying mobile technologies to more than one area of agricultural focus, with the highest interest being in: sending information to project beneficiaries, communication within the organization, receiving data and comments from project beneficiaries, using SMS to follow market prices and supply, and supporting education and training.

Fig. 6:

Graph: In What Areas Would You Use Mobile Technologies?
Graph: In What Areas Would You Use Mobile Technologies?

All organizations replied that they are ready now for further training on the implementation of mobile technologies, with an emphasis on technical support and training in new technologies, networking opportunities with other organizations, and provision of mobile and technological materials.

In general, Senegalese NGOs already use computer, Internet, and mobile phone technologies in the workplace, and to a more limited extent, on agriculture-related projects. Organizations expressed interested in future TechCamps, training workshops, and access to video trainings as possible methods to master mobile technologies.

Although mobile technology plays only a limited role in agricultural programming, this is changing. The challenge? Getting up to speed on how to use the technologies in the first place.

The majority of NGOs requested follow-up video trainings on the mobile technologies presented, which Code will facilitate and share on the Facebook group. Of course, being able to access an online video posted on a social networking site assumes a high level of digital literacy, but we were assured by participants that they could access these platforms through office computers.

Thanks for reading!


How Senegalese Agricultural NGOs Are Adapting Mobile Technologies: Part 1


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.


Notes from TechCamp Dakar


Last week I had the good fortune to attend TechCamp Dakar, the first of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's "Civil Society 2.0" initiatives to be held on the continent. The two-day gathering focused on mobile technologies in agriculture. Given the recurring food crises in the Sahel, examining how Senegalese NGOs can leverage technology for better programming, advocacy and coordination was a good one and over 50 organizations working in agriculture were in attendance, supported by local technology leaders, including us. Check out some of the photos here.

Here's a look at the technologies presented and a few of the applications the NGOs found for those technologies in their agricultural programming:

  • Social media: Marieme Jamme of SpotOne Global Solutions and Apps4Africa presented on the importance of using social media to gain visibility, credibility and funding. She compared social media to the traditional African "arbre a palabre," or palaver tree, to remind participants that the concept of sharing and debating about issues is a familiar one. Some participants later created a Facebook group "L'arbre à palabre des acteurs agricole du Sénégal" to better reach local agriculturalists and include them in online discussion.
  • Community mapping: Open Street Map was in attendance, showing participants the usefulness of visualizing data when planning a program or community outreach. I later participated in a small group session that sought to apply Open Street Maps to community water management of drylands areas.
  • Group networking sites: MeetUp was in attendance, although their paid service model received less enthusiastic support from Senegalese who weren't likely to have a credit card set up to create a group online. At Code Innovation, we like free and open source group networking sites like Crabgrass, as they provide the fewest barriers to entry.
  • Low-cost video: FHI 360 presented a strong case for the ease of use and scalability of low-cost video as a training and communication technology alongside the more traditional agricultural extension agents, field days and demonstration plots. FHI 360 brought along several relatively low-cost cameras and a USB-chargeable mini pico projector for video screenings. Many NGOs saw the potential for low-cost video to aid their agricultural trainings, especially in communicating about new methods and creating the motivation to try them.
  • Mobile money: A private sector organization, E-Amarante, presented Mobile Cash, a local interpretation of the East African service MPesa that's still in development. Although the system is interoperable across mobile networks, participants baulked at the 3-5% fees levied on mobile transfers and transactions. All the same, mobile money has a bright future on the continent, and the leading mobile network operators here in Senegal already have their own programs and versions--with a similar fee structure.
  • SMS: FrontlineSMS was in attendance with a simple demo of how SMS could be used for data collection and crowdsourcing, and showed briefly how to link the system with Ushahidi for data visualization on a map. In my small group, participants saw the relevance for communicating within agricultural cooperatives and about market prices, but would likely need some technical support to set up the system.
  • Google Apps: Presented by People Input, the Google Suite of programs were well presented and enthusiastically received. File-sharing and keeping easily accessible versions of current documents seemed to be major coordination challenges for the NGOs present, and most of the larger group work focused on integrating Google Apps tools into communications protocols to make partnering and information sharing more effective.
  • Mobile phone market information: Africa Market Price, another project by E-Amarante, seeks to communicate local market prices to rural farmers by SMS, as similar projects across the continent have done.
  • Webcasting: CarRapide TV presented its YouTube channel of citizen reporting and spoke about the benefits of web broadcasting to reach large audiences of agricultural producers.

After they'd had a chance to learn about specific technologies more in-depth, participants worked together in small groups to brainstorm major problems they encounter in their day-to-day work, and then examined how a selected technology could help them meet those challenges. There was intense work in small groups around issues including managing water, communicating market prices, and inter-organizational collaboration. As a final exercise, small groups were tasked with creating next steps on how to work together to put these technological tools into practice. The results will be shared internally on the TechCamp Dakar Facebook group and on the public TechCamp Dakar wiki.

One of the best parts of TechCamp, for me, was seeing how focused the NGOs were on solving their challenges through technology together. For many of them, technology was a tool that enabled wider partnership and clearer, more precise communication around their program objectives. They were keenly focused on problem-solving and highly motivated to work together. It will be interesting to see how collaboration continues now that the intensity of TechCamp has passed.

It was also great to meet fellow technology people working in Senegal, including Karim Sy of JokkoLabs in Dakar and the team from Bantalabs up in St. Louis, who have programming expertise and can help to put teams together.

Here at Code Innovation, we're interested in what happens after TechCamp Dakar, particularly if and how NGOs will incorporate these new mobile technologies into their programming, where and why they succeed, and where and why they run into hurdles. We'll be spending time on the Facebook group checking in on their progress and seeing where we can lend a hand.