The Missed Opportunities between mHealth and mAgriculture

In a recent ICTforAg event, co-sponsored by Abt Associates, several of us with public health backgrounds participated in a session entitled “What Can mAg learn from mHealth?” mHealth, or mobile health, is a term for the use of mobile phones and other wireless technology in health care. Similarly, mobile agriculture, or mAgriculture, refers to using the same tools to mostly help small farmers.

The idea behind the session was to highlight trends in mHealth, considered by some to be more mature than mAgriculture, and to share lessons and cross-over opportunities. In fact, the key take-away was that the similarities outweigh the differences, with far too little collaboration between the two.

As someone with experience in mHealth, I was struck by how few participants at the conference were familiar faces or organizations, and by the differences in vocabulary and resources. To be sure, there are some important differences between the sectors. mAgriculture applications link farmers to capital, credit and business skills in addition to enhancing their knowledge about agriculture practices and resources. mHealth has made less use of digital payment services, and requires greater sensitivity to confidentiality and security of data.

Yet the lack of programmatic overlap was remarkable given their mutual reliance on mobile infrastructure to achieve their goals and improve lives. Mobile interventions in both sectors face similar challenges:
  • Populations who may have limited familiarity with text messaging;
  • Remote areas where signal coverage is erratic;
  • Limited options for charging phones; and
  • Translating knowledge into behavior change.

And both sectors use mobile phones for similar reasons: to deliver personalized, real-time information to beneficiaries, and to provide support, training, and resources for the outreach workers who serve them. When identifying key opportunities for investment, both point to the need for sustainable business models and high quality monitoring and evaluation.

The mHealth community is producing a burgeoning number of global resources. The World Health Organization’s mHealth Assessment & Planning for Scale toolkit provides step-by-step information about planning, partnering, financing, and operating digital platforms. The mHealth Technical Evidence Review Group produced mHealth Evidence Reporting and Assessment (mERA) guidelines, to improve the rigor of mHealth evidence.

Yet these and other resources are equally relevant to mAgriculture, and other mobile-enabled sectors including education, democracy and governance, and livelihoods. It’s time to move away from the sector approach and combine forces through an mDevelopment umbrella. Through better cross fertilization of mobile initiatives, all sectors will be better positioned to lower transaction costs and develop meaningful research about what works. 
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