The FINANCIAL — Farmers can be much more effective if they have up-to-date information, on prices, practices and weather. With mobile phones and mobile Internet they can get this information when, where and how they need it. The promise of the Internet for agriculture has been a popular idea, and in Georgia, too, policymakers and donors have begun to explore the options. Some pilot projects seek to program specific platforms for farmers, in order to inform and engage them. What many of these attempts may have overlooked is that the best tool is already available: Twitter, with a few tweaks, could transform Georgian agriculture.
Originally invented as a mass SMS tool, Twitter is a great instrument for getting information to many people, quickly. By most estimates there are more than 200.000 Georgian smallholder farmers that Twitter can help to reach, in the right segmentation. The brevity of Twitter focuses messages. Twitter can spread information on new opportunities, on the threat of a new bug, or provide weather forecasts. Twitter surveys, simple to run, allow farmers to share whether they have started seasonal activities – plowing, planting, pruning, harvesting – or whether they have spotted certain problems. Beekeepers, for example, could let other beekeepers know whether their bees have started swarming.
As Twitter integrates photographs and videos, it is easy to tell farmers about new techniques of pruning their vines, about how best to store their hazelnut after harvest, or how to plant wind shelter. Another new feature, live video through Periscope, makes it possible to have online consultancies, where farmers show problems or challenges, and then receive comments from extension specialists, agricultural experts and other farmers. Georgian government’s extension officers at this point are concentrated in Information and Consultancy Centers (ICC), and can’t travel out to meet multiple thousands of smallholder farmers individually. An electronic system would allow them and other experts to greatly expand their reach, and to complement their field visits with an hour or two of e-consultancy per week, from their desks, or even just their mobile phones.
Hashtags help to follow and find information, so that farmers or suppliers can search for items relevant to #hazelnut, #tablegrapes, #persimmon, #storage, #pruning, #greenhouses and many more, in their Georgian equivalent. These can also be provided in pre-programmed lists, to those who are not yet familiar with Twitter’s techniques. The location feature allows services to be even more targeted.
All of these tools are already available and are for free. They do not require the Georgian government or donors or partners to set up servers, or to undertake extensive programming work. The software is adapted into Georgian and also into Armenian, Azerbaijani and Russian, reaching minority populations. Twitter works on all browsers, and its apps run on all modern phones.
By contrast, programming a comprehensive local agricultural platform is likely to be expensive, take a long time, and it is fraught with risk. Even a multi-million dollar solution will have far fewer features than what Twitter can offer now, and conversely is likely to have many bugs. A newly programmed site may struggle to work across devices. The US fiasco with the healthcare website is one of many illustrations that the most experienced countries can struggle to introduce a software or website that works, even if they spend billions of dollars.
Twitter allows Georgia to work with an established system. Facebook also has some attractions in that regard, and Mosavali, a Georgian non-profit venture I have contributed to, has reached tens of thousands of Georgian farmers in a short time, demonstrating just how many farmers are online already. Yet Facebook is also cat videos, nieces & nephews, and intense political discussion. It is too cluttered to sustain the attention on increasing productivity. Twitter, by contrast, is easy to focus, precisely because it is comparatively new in the Georgian context. Moreover, Twitter integrates easily with SMS. Even old Nokia phones can receive tweets as an SMS through a little-known function called Fast Follow, which is free, too. (I should clarify that I work in agriculture in Georgia and have learned the advantages of the Twitter platform through private use, but am not in any ways affiliated with the company.)
By going with Twitter, Georgia could take a big leap forward, with immediate impact, and raise its agricultural productivity. Farmers could find out about initiatives, hear about prices, find out who is selling inputs, see who is buying their harvest, learn about new practices, check insurance, and ask questions that are of concern to them. Agriculture can be networked, and begin its move into the 21st century.
This need not cost more money. Rather, through this strategy existing investments can be used more effectively. By investing into outreach, focusing fragmented agriculture efforts, ensuring that these efforts maximize their e-impact, and providing instructional videos, the government could have a cohesive and powerful strategy, with first results showing in early 2017. The nascent start-up sector in Georgia could develop additional and adapted services.
An extra advantage is that Twitter, the company, may well engage. While Twitter has already had success in public administration with some cities running their information systems through it, Twitter has not been brought to agriculture on a larger scale. There could be enthusiasm for cooperation at Twitter in San Francisco, as the company is also looking for new ways in which its great service can be used. This could help in bringing farmers onto the platform. Switching to Twitter thus can have a transformative impact, yet be budget-neutral and potentially even draw in additional support – the kind of dream solution that rarely is available in policy.
Innovative donors can accelerate this process by commissioning a feasibility study, and bringing together key partners to discuss how the field can be transformed beyond the existing initiatives. Government can task its special agricultural projects agency (APMA) with scoping out how to pilot this initiative. Likely, the initiative would draw lots of talent, because it is a promising approach on a solid platform. It’s worth switching to Twitter, to make Georgian agriculture work better.