Resisting environmental and social injustice through commoning

Resisting environmental and social injustice through commoning

Lize Swartz in conversation with Dr Gustavo García-López, 2019-2021 Prince Claus Chair Social and ...

EADI/ISS Series | Digitalizing agriculture in Africa: promises and risks of an emerging trend by Fabio Gatti and Oane Visser

The potential of the digitalization of agriculture in Africa to contribute to food security, poverty reduction and environmental sustainability agendas is being increasingly claimed by international development actors, and reflects in growing investments in digital technologies that are supposed to help small-scale farmers to ‘upgrade’ the way they farm. However, these technologies should not be considered panaceas from the get-go and require critical scrutiny to ensure that they will benefit who need it the most. There is a strong need for independent and in-depth social science research able to go beyond the surface of international donors and policy makers’ discourses and assess the effectiveness ‘on the ground’ of such new and greatly emphasized developing trend.

Drones used to map the boundaries of fields and monitor plant health, ground sensors to measure soil moisture levels, air temperature and humidity to prevent crop diseases, digital apps to provide farmers with localized weather forecasts, market price information and agricultural advice—these are just some examples of an emerging rural development trend called digital agriculture.

Assuming different guises (‘digital agriculture’, ‘smart farming’, ‘climate-smart agriculture’, ‘precision agriculture’), digital technologies and ICTs have started to penetrate the agricultural sector in the Global South in the past few years. Africa, with more than 60% of the population employed in the rural sector and relatively low agricultural yields, has become the main target of this ‘development’ strategy. For some, this is ‘the new Green Revolution’, an opportunity which Africa, having failed to seize before, cannot afford to miss this time.

These technologies, however, are not without concerns and limitations. Our ongoing research on digital agriculture in Africa draws out some of the hidden dimensions of the digitalization agenda, showing that we need to be aware of the risk that digital agriculture – when implemented without critical debate – might primarily benefit tech companies and multinational input providers, rather than smallholders or the environment. In the next section, therefore, the purported benefits of digital agriculture are discussed, along with some concerns.

Drone flying above beautiful landscape with vineyards

A triple-win strategy

Most proponents of digitalization in agriculture—governments, international donors, development agencies, and high-tech companies—convey the idea that it represents a triple-win solution which could be used to ‘feed’ a rapidly growing population while at the same time reducing rural poverty levels and mitigating the environmental impact of farming.

In terms of food security, digital and mobile technologies promise to deliver better yields and reduced losses arising from bad crop management. The rural poor will purportedly benefit from better market integration from being able to sell their product at higher prices, for example by being able to guarantee the traceability and origin of the product or to reduce the time between crop harvesting and selling, therefore enabling a shift toward more perishable (and profitable) crops (Asad 2016). In addition, the environment would benefit from a reduction in the use of pesticides and wasteful irrigation practices. Nevertheless, the mechanisms that enable achieving such promises remain a ‘black box’.

An expanding market

Digital agriculture seems to be first of all an appealing business opportunity for companies. According to some recent estimations, the market for precision and digital farming products has been growing at 12% per year and is expected to reach €10 billion by 2025. ‘Big tech’ players like Microsoft, Google, IBM, Alibaba, as well as big agribusiness companies like Bayer, Syngenta and John Deere have started to move into the market by making preliminary acquisitions, forging partnerships, and developing new products. In 2013, for example, Monsanto bought the Climate Corporation, a data analytics company specialized in weather forecasting technologies, for US$1.1 million.

Food security

The most intuitive effect of digital innovations in agriculture is an increased food production that would boost farmers’ income. A better reach of agricultural extension services and real-time information (for example regarding short-term weather conditions or market prices), combined with improved access to high-quality inputs and the reduction of losses due to unexpected weather events or bad pest management, are believed to allow small farmers to improve agricultural output both in terms of quantity and quality. Post-harvest losses could also be reduced with the improved monitoring of storage conditions. Additionally, an increasing ability of smallholder farmers to sell to larger markets by allowing buyers to track crops to source (certification and provenance) would allow countries and governments to achieve food security targets due to the much wider availability of lower-cost and more nutritious food products.

Poverty reduction

In mainstream discourses, smallholder farmers are considered the main target of such digital innovation policies. In terms of poverty reduction, easier access to credit and improved traceability of agricultural products, together with better integration into the supply value chain, are believed to eventually increase selling prices and consequently boost smallholder income, therefore contributing to lifting people out of rural poverty. Aker et al. (2016) found, however, that there is limited evidence to support this claim and that farmers do not always manage to sell their products at higher prices when making use of digital market information systems.

In order to make the services economically affordable, one of the solutions offered resides in the ‘Facebook model’: a digital platform collects farmers’ data and gets revenues from using and/or selling this data. In exchange, the users don’t pay (see for example this post). In this way data becomes the ‘exchange good’ with which the farmer effectively pays for the services provided by the company. This opens questions related to data ownership and which arrangements can be put in place to protect farmers’ sensitive data.


In the end, market and economic considerations seem to prevail, so far, over concerns about sustainability and environmental change. A recent report by the Technical Center for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA) in Wageningen states that “hard evidence of the impact of [such innovations] on climate resilience has yet to emerge”. The main climate change-related use case so far seems to be the highly localized weather forecasts, combined with the fact that “by increasing their productivity, [they] can help farmers earn additional income needed to invest in adapting to climate change”. Similarly, for the FAO “the effectiveness of these tools for advancing sustainability goals is unknown”. What are the real implications for the environment, then?

Other challenges and obstacles

From a socio-cultural point of view, there are other aspects that need to be taken into account. Agricultural knowledge transfer is a highly social process based on ‘on-field’ experience: human-to-human interaction might not be easily reduced to blocks of data analyzed by external algorithms (see for example Stone 2010). Also, what Friends of the Earth in a recent position paper calls the ‘erosion of tacit knowledge’ must not be overlooked: the risk is that delegating all farm-management decisions to an ‘expert app’ would reduce farmers’ autonomy and lock them into a dependency relationship with data analytics companies. Last, the lack of infrastructure, the ‘digital divide’ between urban and rural areas, and the high costs of telecommunication services in some countries represent obstacles which should be overcome before digital agriculture would be able to deliver the promised benefits for the rural poor.

In conclusion, the potential of the digitalization of agriculture in Africa to contribute food security, poverty reduction and environmental sustainability agendas still requires a proper assessment based on empirical evidence. More research is required in order to go beyond initial overoptimistic accounts and to facilitate the bridging of local barriers and yet unknown or unexpected effects.

This article is part of a series launched by the EADI (European Association of Development Research and Training Institutes) and the ISS in preparation for the 2020 EADI/ISS General Conference “Solidarity, Peace and Social Justice”. It was also published on the EADI blog.

About the authors:

photo_cvFabio Gatti is a graduate from the Agrarian, Food and Environmental Studies (AFES) major at the International Institute for Social Studies (ISS). Together with dr. Oane Visser, he is currently investigating the impact of digital innovations on smallholder agriculture in Africa.

Foto-OaneVisser-Balkon-1[1]Oane Visser (associate professor, Political Ecology research group, ISS) leads an international Toyota Foundation-funded research project on the socio-economic effects of – and responses to – big data and digitalization in agriculture.


EADI/ISS Series | The Battle is on: Civic Space & Land Rights by Barbara Oosters and Saskia van Veen

Defenders of land rights all over the world struggle with shrinking civic space. The more that space for people to peacefully claim their land rights is restricted, the more intense land disputes become. In 2017, Global witness recorded that globally an unprecedented number of 197 land rights defenders were killed. A recent Oxfam Novib learning lab identified strategies for associations working in the area of land rights to deal with an environment of shifting and shrinking civic space.

My (Barbara)’s fascination and interest for the issue of civic space started in Indonesia. Local organisations struggled with the introduction of a vaguely framed law for Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs), warning them not to work on issues going against ‘’Indonesian’’ values. A few years later I found myself supporting initiatives in more than 15 countries spread across the globe, struggling with shifting and shrinking civic space. Although this is just a fraction of countries facing a reduced space to assemble, associate and speak up freely, it enabled me to learn from a variety of contexts on how people resist, adapt and reclaim civic space. To me the key to win this battle is exactly this: learn from and connect those who face similar challenges fast and on a wide scale. Our opponents are doing exactly the same. We need to become faster and smarter in connecting and learning.

The civic space you have as an individual or organization depends very much on the issue you want to address. Some battle grounds are fiercer than others. Land rights are such a hot potato, touching on the interests of many. Small farmers or indigenous communities who defend their century-old reliance on forests find themselves in front of large agriculture or extractive investment projects. Concerned that land disputes can fuel social disorder, local and national governments limit the space for civil society to assist affected communities. The more that space for people to peacefully claim their land rights is restricted, the more intense land disputes become.  In 2017, Global witness recorded that globally an unprecedented number of 197 land rights defenders were killed.

How to tackle land rights in a complex environment?

In 2019 we at Oxfam Novib scoped the interest of some of our offices and partners working on land rights to document their strategies, successes and brilliant failures to remain influential in a shrinking civic space context. We also looked for Oxfam country offices facing a similar shrinking space while fighting for land rights and looking for inspirational ideas forward. Our vision: bringing them together in a unique participatory learning way in order for all parties to gain from this exchange. As an end-product we envisage a toolbox with actionable tactics that help to resist, adapt and reclaim civic space while working on land rights.

Oxfam country offices, partners and allies from Cambodia, Vietnam and Myanmar took part in this learning lab on land rights and civic space. Cambodian and Vietnamese Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) have had documented some successful outcomes of their land advocacy before, and are having a close look at the adaptive strategies that made these positive gains possible. Over the past number of years, Myanmar has been marked by shifting and shrinking civic space. How to tackle land rights in such a complex/changing environment? Indonesia was added as fourth country because of its exemplary way of bringing a diverse range of civil society together and bridge differences for a common cause.

Avoid naming and shaming

What were some of the successful approaches identified? Monitoring tools for robust land re-allocation and smart collaboration between local and national organisations and their combined strategies enabled change in one country. In another it was more a change of tactics (from confrontational to a more collaborative one) that enabled the participation of hundreds of communities and local CSOs in first ever consultation workshops on a land related law. Naming and shaming tactics were avoided as well as fights in the media. Direct feedback via closed-door meetings proofed more effective.

The need for alliances came out strongly in many aspects. Local organizations fighting for land rights are a fragmented group, with conflicting demands and needs as they all want to defend their rights. Uniting them in solidarity strengthens their common voice for change. It also builds their credibility and highlights their overall size as a force that needs to be acknowledged.  Staying close to one’s constitution is also a key requisite for both success and resilience. Strong solidarity networks to mitigate risks to single organizations proved a successful and necessary tactic throughout.

The Myanmar team, together with partners, is at this moment experimenting with some interesting ways forward, as identified and listed above.  The other participating country representatives are in the process of reflecting on their learnings. On the basis of this experience, we would like to encourage everyone who is struggling with land rights in a shrinking civic space context to join us on this exciting learning road to remain influential on land rights despite all odds. Many have proved that it is possible.

This article is part of a series launched by the EADI (European Association of Development Research and Training Institutes) and the ISS in preparation for the 2020 EADI/ISS General Conference “Solidarity, Peace and Social Justice”. It was also published on the EADI blog.

About the authors:

Barbara Oosters is Policy Advisor civil society space and strengthening at Oxfam Novib – she is supporting the learning lab on land rights and civic space from her expertise on civic space.

Saskia Veen is an Impact Measurement and Knowledge specialist at Oxfam Novib – she is supporting the learning lab in terms of methodology of documentation and learning strategy.

Image Credit: Rainforest Action Network on Flickr