Project C04, Smart Futures

Project Summary

Large-scale land-use change, particularly in relation to programs striving for agricultural intensification, often comes along with substantial changes in the organization of farming practices. Soils only recently converted into agricultural land, outgrower schemes, a different selection of crops, novel irrigation systems and emerging commodity chains severely alter the setting for small-scale farmers in Kenya as well as in Tanzania. The result is new uncertainties, generally amplified by increasing climatic variability, fluctuating market prices and rather unstable infrastructural and political contexts. Information and Communication Technologies (ICT), especially in the form of the ever-increasing ubiquitous mobile phone, are usually perceived as actual or at least potential tools to help farmers tackle these uncertainties. By providing access to knowledge about future events, for example, in the form of weather forecasts or price developments, they are meant to both increase agricultural productivity and make it more sustainable. The project takes this debate on “Information and Communication Technologies for Development” (ICT4D) as a point of departure to study how future-related knowledge becomes mediated through mobile information services (m-services) and how such m-services, in turn, form a decisive part of future-making in rural Africa today.

Research Regions:Tanzania (SAGCOT), Kenya (Kenyan Rift Valley)

Keywords: Information and Communication Technology for Development (ICT4D), human-technology-nature relations, experimentality, technologies of anticipation, technological mediation

Key Questions

1) What visions of (agricultural) development for rural Africa are mediated through mobile information services?


2) How do mobile services translate probabilistic futures into anticipatory instructions by linking scientists, IT specialists, development practitioners and users?


3) How do mobile services transform the way users perceive and act on nature by mediating a specific kind of information and guidance, and thus transform human-nature relations more generally?


Methodology

To explore the ways in which information and communication technologies have informed both visions and practices of agricultural development in Eastern Africa, we used three different empirical approaches. Combining document analysis, event ethnography on agricultural fairs and conferences, and participant observation with NGOs and farmers involved in diverse agricultural development projects which implement ICTs in pest and disease management, SMS-based weather forecast services, mobile applications to secure land tenure and e-extension systems, we were able to follow the idea of a digital transformation. Starting from the frameworks and reports of major organizations to conference presentations and workshops, to the ways in which these inform the concrete design of the software and related rationalities in the implementation/pilot phase, we finally engaged with the use of the advice sent to farmers and how this is embedded in other sources of knowing nature.

Key Milestones

  • 2018

    Event ethnographies at fairs and conferences for ICT4Ag practitioners, Exploration of potential case studies, Document analysis; Reading Seminar “Posthumanist Salon”
  • 2019

    Ethnographic field research with NGOs and farmers in Kenya and Tanzania, Organization of international Workshop on “Digitized Natures”
  • 2020

    Empirical Analysis, Organization of the Annual Meeting of New Cultural Geography in Bonn “Technoscapes & Technocultures”
  • 2021

    Publications and thesis writing

Key Findings

Following our document analysis and the ethnography of some large conferences that brought together practitioners and decision-makers from research institutions, government and non-government agencies and the private sector, it became clear that the current visions about ICT4D and Data4D are primarily based on what is considered as universal expert knowledge. It is characterized by a vision of technological solutionism for development problems, in combination with a strongly entrepreneurial rhetoric. Here, political, economic and social challenges are presented as technical. This way, knowledge is removed from its context: As apparently neutral, technologically collected and processed, information is to be conveyed to the rural population of the Global South to foster development.


Our empirical research, however, put emphasis on the complex coming-together of these visions and respective programs and the local settings and interests (Matejcek & Verne 2021, Matejcek & Verne, accepted, Matejcek et al. submitted). Here it becomes apparent that technical knowledge and information gained through digital technologies is considered more important and objective, and therefore rather superior to local forms of knowledge, with the idea that these technologies may help to overcome the perceived knowledge gap. However, as our insights gained through participant observation in projects disseminating agricultural advisory information show, the encounters between development practitioners taking their visions to the fields and local farmers are hardly as straightforward but rather lead to a hybridization of knowledge, including complex processes of negotiation or even neglect. Focusing on the ways in which different actors interact with technologies, how they translate probabilistic futures into anticipatory instructions, and what role they play both in project’s agendas and context-dependent practices, we found that the new actors and their visions have considerably changed the mechanisms through which agricultural futures should be realized. Key issues, in this regard, are the processes of datafication, gamification and experimentation which form the basis of the two PhD theses which are currently in their writing stage (working titles of PhD theses: “Experiment rural development: Testing Digital Technologies in Southern Tanzania” [Matejcek], “Technologies of Anticipation: Agriculture, Digitalization, and Human-Environment Relations in Kenya” [Rochlitz]).

Publications

Matejcek, A. & Verne, J. (forthcoming) Restoration as Development? Contesting Restoration Opportunities of Wildlife Corridors in Kilombero Valley, Tanzania, The European Journal of Development Research.

Matejcek, A. & Verne, J. (2021), Mobile Applications to Secure Tenure in Rural Tanzania: Anticipating Diverging Agricultural Futures and the Production of (In)securities in the Kilombero Valley, Culture Unbound, Special Issue: Anticipatory Knowledge and the Practices of Measuring and Producing (In)Security. Online first.

Verne, J., Poerting, J., Krieg, L., Zurmühlen, O. (2021) Tiere als lebendige Werkzeuge der Wissensproduktion, in: Füller, H., Straube, T. & Bork-Hüffer, T. (eds.) Handbuch Digitale Geographien, UTB: Stuttgart.

Poerting, J., Verne, J., Krieg, L. (2020) Gefährliche Begegnungen. Posthumanistische Ansätze in der technologischen Neuaushandlung des Zusammenlebens von Mensch und Wildtier, Geographische Zeitschrift 108, 3, 153-175. DOI.

Verne, J. & Müller-Mahn, D. (2020) Geographische Entwicklungsforschung, Gebhardt. H. et al. (Hrsg.) Geographie. Physische Geographie und Humangeographie, 3. Auflage, Springer: Heidelberg. Link.

Verne, J., Ouma, S. & Stenmanns, J. (2019) African Economies: Simply connect? Problematizing the Discourse on Connectivity in Logistics and Communication, Graham, M. (ed.) Digital Economies at Global Margins, MIT Press, IDRC, 341-363. Link.

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