Today is World Food Day.
This year’s theme on food price volatility is an important one – more than 70 million people have fallen into extreme poverty over the last year due to rising food costs. Volatility in food prices remains a very real threat to vulnerable people across the developing world, with some economists predicting continued rises in staple crops even past the historically high levels seen between 2005 and 2008.
When I learned of this year’s World Food Day theme, I couldn’t help but think of how my current work with Engineers Without Borders in Ghana tied into the overall question of food price volatility. A large part of my work over the last seven months here has been focused on understanding and developing innovative ways to increase technology adoption with small-scale farmers. I’ve mainly been trying to understand why farmers are not adopting certain good agronomic practices, like row planting or proper seed spacing, which have been proven to increase agricultural productivity (or the ratio of outputs to inputs). This, as I see it, is an important step in mitigating against future price volatility in staple foods, at least at the farmer level. Increases in agricultural productivity can increase access to local food as well as the incomes of smallholder farmers.
From visiting farmers’ fields in different regions of Ghana, I’d see the potential for higher productivity for most crops in the country, but continued to question why greater yields were not being realized. I was stunned after reading a recent University of Cape Coast study which stated that although the vast majority (more than 90%) of farmers in Ghana were aware of agricultural production practices such as row planting, proper spacing and timely weeding, adoption of these practices remained relatively low. These results matched well with what I was seeing on the ground, but didn’t seem to make intuitive sense to my engineering mindset. How was it that farmers who were aware of techniques or practices that could benefit them greatly not be practicing these same techniques?
Enter Sendhil Mullainathan, a Professor of Economics at Harvard University. In his TED talk from last year, he speaks of this exact phenomenon, calling it a “Last Mile” problem. Basically, he states that even in the face of the “perfect” technological solution to a problem, human beings might still need to be convinced to actually use the technology due to a potential conflict with their mental models.
An example from my work: Many farmers I’ve met understand how to plant their crops in rows and know that by doing so, they’ll achieve greater yields (all else being equal). They’ll also say when asked that row planting takes a lot more time than the traditional method of broadcasting seed (basically walking through the field and tossing seed onto the ground), which is true. Does this mean that the farmers are lazy? Hardly. These farmers actually prefer to increase the size of their fields, believing it to be a better indicator of success. This practice, however, can be detrimental in the long run, since it actually leads to more time spent weeding and harvesting over the full growing season.
After realizing this, I was interested in experimenting with whether or not this type of behaviour could be changed and the best way to go about it. I thought that by using another farmer who was successfully using the practices to spread the message, the potential for change with colleague farmers would be greater. In essence, I wanted to convince farmers to adopt a new technique by listening to one of their own. I tested this idea by using video testimonials of farmers who were successfully transplanting and row planting their rice and showing it to other groups of farmers who were aware of the practices of transplanting and row planting, but not interested in actually doing them (mainly due to a perceived increase in time requirements). Results were positive, with around 78% of farmers who saw the video being interested in trying the techniques during the next cropping season (more detail can be found in the following briefing paper).
This was a situation where the technologies were sound – they’d been tried and tested for decades – and yet farmers were not willing to actually use them on their fields. It wasn’t a question of just throwing the techniques at farmers and expecting them to use them, believing that because it was the rational choice, it would actually be followed. This came down to understanding that farmers sometimes need to be convinced to use an agricultural practice and that listening to a fellow farmer might be a good way to get the message across.
What does this mean for those interested in combating future food price volatility for a growing global population? Apart from the policy and funding shifts that are required at the international and national levels, we need to step back and re-visit some of our core assumptions at the farmer level. To start, we need to develop a much better understanding of why current agricultural best practices are not being adopted by a large percentage of small-scale farmers across Ghana and the rest of Africa. As Mullainathan says:
“We tend to think the problem is solved when we solve the technology problem. But the human innovation, the human problem still remains, and that’s the great frontier that we have left.”
Without spending the time and effort required to address the social and psychological challenges surrounding these issues and developing successful behaviour change strategies towards overcoming them, the true potential of African agriculture will never be realized and the effects of price volatility will remain a persistent problem in many of these countries for years to come.