The phone besides the hoe. How ICTs are changing the agriculture

Today, 5 billion people use mobile phones and the total number of subscription is 7.4 billion. Moreover, almost 3.5 billion people are connected to the internet and this number is not expected to stop soon.
Agriculture represents one of the most affected sectors. For instance, farmers use mobile devices to know prices, products and also information to manage properly their resources. This is essential to reduce the transaction costs.

by Federico Rivara

Regarding this topic, we have interviewed Simone Sala, a consultant at the Food and Agriculture of the United Nations (FAO) and lecturer of the module ICTs for Agriculture and Environment within the course ICT Innovations for Development organised by Ong 2.0.

simone_sala_bangladeshSimone works for a division of the FAO which aims at developing and suggesting communication techniques supposed to ease the dialogue amongst various actors in rural contexts. “This is necessary in order to, for example, facilitate the collaboration between smallholders and government agencies”, he explains. Very recently, coincidently with the G20 held in Hangzhou, China, FAO, the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) have teamed up to create a platform over ICTs regarding the sustainable agriculture development.

The dialogue amongst different actors and the information flows”, as Sala says, “makes often the difference to the results of a project”. He tells us how a project over the water resources in Lebanon became more efficient once his team better understood  how to use the communication technologies. During the first stage of the project, the team was too focused on the technology transfer, without a deep analysis of the local context. Talking more about the available means with the actors involved improved the project that today can go on.

“If the information is well spread and accessible”, Sala says “a large number of users can be reached”. An example comes from Ethiopia and its Ethiopian Agricultural Transformation Agency. The 8028 Hotline service, based on a simple technology such as the telephone, allows thousands of farmers to get advice and information about agriculture practices by means of SMS or interactive voice response. Launched in July 2014, the agency registered 7.3 million phone calls made by 1.2 million registered people.

According to Sala, in the light of his experiences, “some dynamics – within the agricultural context – occur in African countries as well as in Italy. A common problem is indeed represented by the access to technologies which might lead market diversification. Moreover, today farms are, on average, small. This implies that farmers are unable to afford technological investments. A state intervention could reduce these barriers”.

However, other actors can allow more access to technological innovations.

Farm Radio International represents an example. “The radio is one of the main information channels for the smallholders in rural areas”. This organisation, based in Canada, has developed a network that consists of 500 radio partners. Today, it works in 38 African countries and aims to give voice to smallholders so that the radio can spread information which comes directly from them and reach other farmers with similar problems and needs.

Moreover, Digital Green.  This non-profit organisation has thought to make videos in which the protagonists are the farmers themselves. The “actors” show their agricultural practices to the viewers who are farmers as well. In the video below it is possible to see how the communication  by means of video can be more simple because the video makers and viewers belong to the same community.

Finally, Ignitia. This social enterprise, based in Sweden, has been the first actor willing to make weather models specific for the tropical areas. Thanks to them, it is possible to know precise weather forecasts for very specific regions. The unpredictability of the weather is one of the main problems for farmers, especially in countries where they cannot count on weather stations. Today Ignitia is present in Western Africa, 80,000 farmers have been involved (2015) and they declare a forecast precision close to 84%.

“A large number of tools is available and every day more of them are launched”, Sala claims “people who work in the development sector need to know them. More importantly, aid workers have to understand which instruments is the best in a specific context”.

This is why Simone will be teaching his module within the course ICT Innovations for Development. The module consists four meetings (first lesson on the 11th of November) in which he will discuss ICTs for agriculture, information channel and data sets, main actors in these sectors, applications, case studies, exercises and so on.

Photo credit: MedSpring and Flickr

OpenStreetMap: the simple map that became a global movement

When I created OSM (OpenStreetMap), more than 10 years ago, my idea was to create a simple map“. So thought Steve Coast, creator and founder of the OpenStreetMap (OSM), probably wouldn’t have imagined that in 2016, the registered users around the world, would have been over 2, 4 million, a number that makes OSM the Wikipedia of the maps and, in the terms of participation and sharing, the largest map in the world.

Written by Claudia Mocci


One of the questions I often asked to myself and I guess that all the users ask themselves the first time they use this tool is: what makes OpenStreetMap so special?

There are two key aspects to be considered, one purely technical and an other more sociological. Contributing to OSM, by “drawing” what is visible can technically be done from anywhere and from anyone. Using one of the various editing interfaces, you can create the data starting from an aerial photograph of a particular place in the world and drawing long lines (roads, waterways, paths), or drawing around the areas (buildings, playgrounds, forests …) that you can see in the picture.

The second aspect, according to me, is the most important and it’s related to social utility: these maps are based on the philosophy of open source and open data, sharing and free reuse are the cardinal principles.

Contributors and users are different, as different are the reasons that lead each of them to contribute. There are random or systematic mappers, those who participate because they have a special connection and interest with a particular place, others that add and modify datas associated to humanitarian events and crises.

The data produced by OSM, as raw and free, have given birth to many important social projects, as Wheelmap, an online map and related app, open and free for the wheelchair accessibility. Wheelmap allows users to share and access information on accessibility for wheelchairs in public places.

On the subject of humanitarian emergencies, there is a project developed by HumanitarianOpenStreetMap Team for remote mapping of areas affected by the crisis, the Tasking Manager .The basic idea is that a free geographic database improves the readiness of response in case of crises and natural disasters, helping to save lives. In addition, access to this geo-database is a great way to get involve local actors and the start of the community resilience processes. Another aspect, not least, is to consider: this kind of mapping – conducted mainly by volunteers using open source tools with connections often household – has no cost for humanitarian organisations.

Shortly, maps help aid workers to understand and respond to humanitarian crises (MapAction, 2015). The Director of Save the Children International, Charlie Mason (from MapAction, 2011, p 3) said that: “In case of emergency we need maps, maps of the affected population, displaced persons, the main streets, other humanitarian actors, clinics, water points and so on, all the things we need to plan and coordinate the response “. OpenStreetMap has become even this, a comprehensive and participated response for this type of need. Projects such CartOng, Missing Maps and many projects born after the earthquake in Haiti in 2010, in Nepal in 2015th the latest in Ecuador and Sri Lanka are a practical and tangible demonstration.


Photo credits: Mapping in Lubumbashi (RDC) 

Is mobile money really the key of financial inclusion?

Over the past years, mobile money has become the quintessential African success story. The reason is easy to explain: it contributes to shatter the worn-out picture of war and famine advanced for decades by the mainstream media, and conjures up a fresh and inspiring image of modernity and ingenuity, winking to Pan-African values but in a hi-tech fashion.

di Gianluca Iazzolino*

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RapidSMS: an example of mhealth application

Mhealth tools can be deployed with many functionalities, such as: data collection, point of care, logistics, remote monitoring, treatment adherence, education awareness, training, and disease tracking. Read more

Student launches solar backpack for Kenyan school children

Former Aga Khan Academy, Mombasa, student Salima Visram has become a social entrepreneur even as she studies as an undergraduate in Canada, with the launch of a crowd-funded Kenyan business producing school students’ backpacks that create solar lighting for pupils to do their homework.

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The future of Agriculture? Without land, without pesticides and with very little water

In the next 50 years we will exceed 9 billion population on Earth and we should produce more food than was consumed in the whole history of mankind, while soil, water and air are more and more polluted. So what we can do?

The discussion is not about the problem -unfortunately- very clear: from the 2025 two thirds of global population will already suffer for hydric scarcity and in 2050 we will have exceeded 9 billion inhabitants on earth (and today we are 7.3 billion); if we won’t find other ways to live, cultivate and consume, the majority of the population will be sentenced to a life of hardship.

As well narrates the scientific journalist Alan Weisman in his book “Countdown:Our Last, Best Hope for a Future on Earth?”, in 2050, if there won’t be relevant discovers in the energetic field and in the food production systems, there won’t be enough food for all. Until we were content using the sun “conversion” to nurish us, we grew with very low rhythmes. In 1815 we were a billion, in 1930 we redoubled, with the oil discover and the use of hydrocarbons to generate energy we became 5 billion in 2013 and, though the settlement phase that is expected, we will be among 9 and 10 billion in 2050.

In the next 50 years, so, we should produce more food than the quantity consumed in the whole history of mankind.

But how? This is the starting question of Expo 2015 that, beyond the possible deviations as culinary and exhibist kermesse, tried even to give scientific answers and spread awareness about this problem.

The most interesting answer, according to me, because already amply practiced, even if less known, is the one in Belgium Pavillion (and in Kazakhstan, Qatar, Oman and -in part- in Usa), or rather, the hydroponic (or waterponic, or aeroponic) agriculture practice, or, the agriculture without soil, with little consumption of water and without pesticide (and you shouldn’t confuse it with the hydroculture, the cultivation of plants in water).

In the hydroponic process, land is replaced by very small quantities of an inert substratum (expanded clay, perlite, coconut fibre, stone wool and so on) placed in tubes or columns in which flows water, due to a pump (water is totally recycled). The necessary nutrients are added in order to integrate all the essential elements to the plant for growing. In the most advanced formulas, the pumps are connected to solar panels, that allows not to consume energy and everything is computerized, humidity, nutrients, temperature. The hydroponic culture allows plentiful crops, further than seasonality, even in arid zones, and guarantees a total hygienical-sanitary security during the whole year.

Indeed, organic agriculture very often underestimates the pollution of land, of groundwater, rainfall and air, which are not really controllable.

For example, the good but not strictly rational trend of urban balcony garden, responds to the need of people to regain control over production of their own food, but it takes no account of the concentration of exhaust-gas, ppm and pm10 that than we find in “organic” tomatoes cultivated above motorways.


Hydroponics solve this problem. It is able to grow indoors, at home, lit with LED lamps (also connected to solar panels). This completely removes the need of pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers, and allows to continuous harvests, in every season, ensuring very clean food.

Even the design of the structure can satisfy every whim: vertical, horizontal, cube, pyramid columns, the only important thing is that the roots of the plants are irrigated by surface or per spray irrigation with water and nutrients.

In the Aquaponics formula, then, there is no need of external nutrients for plants as it creates a symbiosis between plants and animals: the crops are linked to fish tanks; nutrients for plants are produced from the fish excrement and water is purified by plants to be reused.

Actually, is a very old technique, dating back to the ancient Aztecs, and it is already practiced on a small scale in many countries for over 20 years.

However it is more complex to manage than hydroponics because requires a delicate bacterial balance and is less appropriate for large scale installations.


The results of these cultivation methods are astonishing: 500% more productivity than ground crops, 90% less consumption of water, 50% faster growth, 40% fewer work, 30% less of required energy (also, hydroponic and aquaponic systems can be placed anywhere, even in the city, in an abandoned factory or at home, and can finally achieve the principle of “km0 food”).

In Italy, in the Province of Rieti, the Ferrari Farm has developed hydroponics crops in sterile and hermetic greenhouses, fully self-produced and computerized.

These techniques are not from sci-fi movies as “The Martian”, if you take a tour on Google you will find countless examples already in place: from large agricultural systems to small household productions in which the system is even self-produced with recycled materials.

The logic emerged at Expo, and already promoted by several companies in the US, is that the hydroponic cultivation system may become a new “household appliance” to produce our own vegetables in an autonomous, safe, totally pollutants free and Km0 way.




Originally written by Silvia Pochettino. Translated into English by Camilla Marchetti and Chiara Parapini.

Photo Credits:

Open Badges, a new digital standard to get recognition for skills you learn

Learning and training opportunities equip people with new skills and competences every day. The question is just how to acknowledge and value those skills to optimize their visibility and share-ability. Say hello! to the degree 2.0 thanks to Open Badges and Bestr.

By Eloisa Spinazzola, translated by Simone Ravaioli.

Along with the ever increasing amount of data we collect everyday also constantly grow the skills we acquire outside our regular jobs or formal education by attending events, online trainings, and specific courses. Let alone the chance to participate to summer schools, workshops, or weekend retreats. But our crave to learn may be inhibited by the need for some sort of recognition for those learning experiences.

Here comes Bestr to help. A project co-signed by Mozilla and Cineca to make personal skills and competences visible and easily share them with the rest of the connected world. It is done by issuing micro-credentials – called Open Badges – which certify the acquisition of a skill obtained through a variety of different learning paths – non necessarily formal.

The launch of the project

The project was rolled out on July 4th 2015, kicking off with the first initiative called “Giardino delle Imprese”, a training program aimed at developing entrepreneurial skills for high school students. At the end of this non-formal educational path participants will receive their first Open Badges issued by the Bestr platform and will be able to share them through their socials.

Open Badges

If only Open Badges were the same ol’ certificates, then nothing new. Instead they are a visual representation of a skill, digital and portable, containing a set of metadata associated with the competences acquired through a particular (learning) experience. Badges make skills visible and acknowledged as an Open Standard globally known as the Open Badge Infrastructure (OBI).

Bestr, more than platform 

Just like Open Badges are more than certificates, Bestr is more than a Badge Factory. In this first release user will be able to collect their Badges into their profiles, share them on their socials and embed them into LinkedIn for example. Once the full functionalities of the platform will be available (Early 2016) Bestr will become an exchange place between learners, employers and learning providers. For the Learners it will offer personalized learning and experience pathways, for Employers the possibility to orient the learning providers by endorsing skills the market is interested in and find talent to match their skill need, and for Learning providers it will provide a marketplace to promote their training offering and disseminate their culture and brand.

A futher innovation opportunity for ONG 2.0

ONG 2.0 will be among the selected pilots of Bestr. The added value for ONG2.0 will be the possibility to issue Open Badges for its online courses. Participants will then be able to share with their networks their digital certificate leveraging its innovative and social potential.

Sharing is always the viral beginning of a new collective knowledge experience.