When Simple is Difficult: Agriculture Technology in the Age of Innovation

A pair of hands holding potatoes freshly harvested

This post was originally featured on the Chicago Council of Global Affairs’ Blog, Global Food For Thought As a US Peace Corps Volunteer in a rural Ugandan village in 2010, I never expected my neighbors to own satellite TVs. We couldn’t buy carrots at a market within a 30-kilometer radius.  I planted beans with my neighbors by stuffing my cheeks with seeds like a chipmunk, slicing rows in the ground with a hoe, and spitting the seeds into the soil at two-foot spacing.  No one in my village owned a plow or had access to diverse, quality seeds, but I could watch Al Jazeera each night. This bewildered me. Why do some technologies spread like wildfire across the globe while others stagnate in the prototype stage, in a seemingly perpetual cycle of minor iterations? In 2015, almost 4.5 billion people owned a mobile phone, about 2.5 billion of them smart phones.  In 2016, 3.5 billion people had access to the internet. Innovation diffusion theorists have a lot to say about what it takes for an innovation to spread. Risk. Market potential. Social influence. But the “invisible hand of innovation diffusion” is agnostic to the societal value of a successful innovation; sometimes, the technologies that stick aren’t the technologies that are most needed. And sometimes what’s needed are the most simple or incremental innovations. For example, the Global Knowledge Initiative (GKI), in its role as the Innovation Partner for The Rockefeller Foundation’s YieldWise initiative, recently conducted an Innovation Scan for solar drying technologies appropriate for smallholder farmers in Nigeria who grow tomatoes. Nigeria is Africa’s second largest tomato producer, but 40-50 percent of the harvest is lost before it reaches a market. The remaining portion faces price volatility during the harvest glut. Drying offers one solution to this challenge. Smallholder farmers in Nigeria are familiar with drying their excess or damaged tomatoes. They often do so in the sun on mats, rocks, or roofs; it is a slow, unreliable process that can […]

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