For decades, the narrative surrounding digital agriculture in Africa has been one of transformative potential. Visions of farmers wielding smartphones and utilizing complex apps to optimize crop yields have dominated development discussions. However, a new study by the Fracture Numérique (Digital Divide) project paints a more nuanced picture, revealing a reality far removed from the idealized promises.

The two-year research initiative delved into digital adoption by smallholder farmers across three West African countries – Senegal, Ivory Coast, and Benin – focusing on distinct value chains: dairy, cocoa, and vegetables. “We wanted to see if the promise of digital technologies translated into real-world practices for these farmers,” explains project coordinator Nicolas Paget, a researcher at CIRAD.

The findings expose a surprising truth – for most West African farmers, the sole digital tool is the humble mobile phone. While ubiquitous, phone ownership varies – 20% lack a phone altogether, 60% have basic models, and only 20% possess smartphones. This digital divide mirrors existing social inequalities, with phone ownership skewing towards men, urban dwellers, younger demographics, and the more educated.

However, limited access to sophisticated tools hasn’t deterred these resourceful farmers from harnessing the power of their phones. “There’s a strong motivation to embrace digital tools,” says Florent Okry, a researcher at Benin’s National University of Agriculture. “Our surveys show people never go back once they have access.”

So how exactly are these farmers utilizing their phones? The answer lies in leveraging the power of basic functionalities. “We see a surge in mobile money transactions and farmers using instant messaging groups to exchange information and knowledge,” says Paget. These virtual communities serve as crucial platforms for peer-to-peer learning, pest identification, product promotion, and price negotiation with buyers.

The study’s key takeaway challenges the top-down approach often favored by policymakers and international donors. “The focus tends to be on developing specialized agricultural apps,” says Paget, “which can be expensive and require significant user training. The irony is, these apps often go unused.” The researchers advocate for a more frugal approach, empowering farmers by building upon existing skillsets and tools.

“The most effective strategy lies in supporting the ‘frugal use’ of basic digital technology,” proposes Martin Notaro, a CIRAD researcher. “By leveraging familiar tools and capabilities, farmers can improve daily agricultural operations efficiently.”

The Fracture Numérique project culminated in workshops across the three countries, fostering dialogue between farmers, financial institutions, mobile operators, startups, and government ministries. This collaborative effort aims to bridge the digital divide by developing practical and user-friendly digital tools that empower West Africa’s farmers to navigate the agricultural landscape in an increasingly tech-driven world.