Mobile technology is changing the way of life for millions of rural farmers across the West African country of Ghana. They receive texts with up-to-date crop prices, weather alerts, and advice about planting. Using electronic payment services, they now have credit histories to secure loans. With mobile technology, they can find drivers to haul their fresh produce to market before it spoils.
In short, mobile apps are empowering long-struggling Ghanaian farmers—who, on average, cultivate less than an acre of arable land—in ways that were once thought impossible. But there may be a flip side.
François van Schalkwyk, a South African researcher who has been studying open data in Ghana’s agriculture industry, wonders if it’s all too good to be true. Underlying Ghana’s digital transformation is a massive collection of information—on farmers, their operations and every other aspect of the agriculture industry—by the government, for-profit companies and other entities that fervently believe data is fair game in the name of development.
Van Schalkwyk worries that the very organizations developing mobile services to help farmers may, in fact, despite their best intentions, be exploiting them. Or, if they are not yet doing so, they may have little choice but to profit from farmers’ data as they seek to buck the trend and become a fully self-sustainable social enterprise.
“The data that Ghanaian farmers are producing has value and they should benefit when they provide that data to others,” he argues. “The question I have is, as for-profit companies and other intermediaries access more data on farmers, is the value that farmers get in return fair and equitable?”
With help from a 2017 Digital Impact grant, Van Schalkwyk and a team of researchers are searching for the answer. After reviewing existing literature on data and economic rights, they met with Ghanaian farmers and other players in the country’s data ecosystem to better understand the role of digital intermediaries. They also allied with rights advocacy groups around the world that are intent on raising awareness of the limits to data’s unfettered use in the name of doing good.
The Problem With Putting Profits Before Transparency
Van Schalkwyk’s concern regarding the fair and equitable exchange of farmers’ data grew out of his previous research on a major supplier of digital services to Ghana’s agriculture industry. The supplier, a for-profit company called Esoko, got its start in 2005 with a simple proposition: to deliver market prices directly (along with weather forecasts) to farmers’ phones.
The idea was to leverage multiple sources of data, and to use that information to develop services they could sell to farmers cheaply or, with help from donors, for free.
As Van Schalkwyk looked into Esoko and its push into new services, he started to worry that farmers were giving up more than they were gaining. Economic rights, he says, have been codified in a series of multilateral declarations of human rights since World War II. But, in the digital age, they have been overshadowed by larger debates over privacy rights and the ethical use of information.
The concept of economic rights in the era of big data is complicated, with data ownership lacking a clear definition. At the individual level, personal information isn’t all that valuable and the limits on its use are more established. The value of that information increases when for-profit companies, nonprofits, non-governmental organizations, and other intermediaries collect it, analyze it, and use it for their own purposes.
According to Van Schalkwyk’s grant report, Esoko holds data on 1.5 million farmers and three million low-income households in Ghana. He does not fully know what kind of data the company has collected, but says there are reasons for wanting to find out. Esoko has long struggled to make money and, as a result, is constantly evolving a business model built around farmers’ data.
“The big concern,” says Van Schalkwyk, “is if Esoko is sitting on a pile of data provided by farmers. As a business whose primary clients are farmers, they might be tempted to sell that data without regard to fair compensation for farmers.”
One voice that so far has not been heard is that of the farmers. Farming is an increasingly data-driven business. Yet, the world’s smallholder farmers typically have only minimal education and limited resources. In Ghana, for example, mobile phone coverage can be spotty or nonexistent.
To survey farmers on their views of technology, the research team met with nearly 30 Ghanaian farmers in May 2018. The consensus was mixed: Technology, they told researchers, has been both a boon and an unwanted replacement for longstanding practices. For example, farmers have long been visited by government extension officers who work directly with them to help boost production and improve marketing. The farmers surveyed said they would not want digital services to replace those personal interactions.
When it comes to sharing data, the farmers said they don’t feel short-changed. “They weren’t up in arms,” says Van Schalkwyk. “They perceive the exchange [of data in return for information on market prices and the weather] as a fair one.”
In spite of this, Van Schalkwyk remains leery about technology’s role in Ghanaian agriculture. For example, he wonders what farmers would think if they knew for certain what Esoko was doing with their information, or if they had broader awareness of the potential value of their data.
Van Schalkwyk isn’t the only one concerned about technology’s impact on poor farmers worldwide. He’s part of an international coalition of farmer advocacy groups calling for a global framework for protecting farmers in the digital age. He recently spoke about his grant work at one of their consultations on the ethical, legal, and policy aspects of data sharing in the agriculture sector.
Van Schalkwyk says it’s critical to keep the spotlight on the question of fair exchange. “We shouldn’t get caught up in the hype that all data, both public and private, is inherently good, and that the organizations in Ghana and elsewhere that are accessing farmers’ data will inevitably make the world a better place. Nor should we veer to the other extreme and end up with a tangle of rights that throttle data flows and innovation. What we need to understand better is how data flows can be made fair and equitable for all concerned—from smallholder farmers in Ghana to innovative local intermediaries to global multinationals.”
Digital Impact, an initiative of the Digital Civil Society Lab at the Stanford Center for Philanthropy and Civil Society (Stanford PACS), helps fund research teams and nonprofits looking to advance the safe, ethical, and effective use of digital resources for social good. With the support of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Digital Impact has given nearly three-quarters of a million dollars in grants since 2016.