Ask a TechnoServe Expert: Dave Hale on Tech

"Ask a TechnoServe Expert" is a series where our staff members, who work on a range of important global development issues, answer your questions. In this edition, Dave Hale, director of TechnoServe Labs, answered your questions.

Dave Hale is the director of TechnoServe Labs, a new initiative based in the San Francisco Bay Area to identify, test, and implement promising technologies to deliver market-based solutions to poverty. Prior to joining TechnoServe, Dave was a consultant with Bain & Company in San Francisco and spent most of his career in hardware and software startups in the United States, Europe, and Asia.

What new and emerging technologies are you most excited about when it comes to development work?

– Anonymous

There are three main types of technology TechnoServe is looking at right now: remote sensing (coupled with machine learning), distributed applications, and distance learning/e-learning platforms.

The first core area is remote sensing, which has to do with measuring and capturing information from a distance (satellites, airplanes, drones, etc.). We can use this imagery to help determine whether people are implementing agronomy best practices. Based on the remote sensing data, we can target training programs to the farmers who are not currently implementing best practices.

With enough data, it is possible to train computer algorithms to process these images – this is the machine learning component. The algorithms can analyze the remote sensing data and determine what areas have healthy vegetation and what areas do not. It is even possible to capture more specific data about practice implementation, such as whether people are stumping their coffee trees – a technique that will increase yields long term.

Dave Hale, Director of TechnoServe Labs
Dave Hale, director of TechnoServe Labs

Distributed applications (DApps), such as blockchain, are the second type of technology that may be applicable to TechnoServe’s work. In environments where there is relatively low trust,  smart contracts based on blockchain can help people store information and process transactions securely. These can be useful in low trust environments because they are immutable, distributed (no single point of failure), digital ledgers for transactions and contract information.

Third, e-learning and distance-learning platforms can help TechnoServe improve the cost-effectiveness of our education programs across our sectors in Africa, India, and Latin America. There are several global e-learning platforms that are mature and well-established, so this is a technology we can implement without having to develop it ourselves. We hope to test different distance learning ideas as a part of a hybrid training approach to improve cost effectiveness without reducing program efficacy.

How can technology help boost agricultural production in rural areas?

– Stephano Izengo; Tanzania

There are a few different ways that technology can help boost agricultural production. First, it helps us tailor how we offer our agricultural training. For example, in our cashew work, we ideally would like to only train farmers who have not been trained previously. With remote sensing and machine learning, we can gather data to see which farms have not implemented good agronomic practices. This helps us target our training on this group, saving time and money.

Technology can also make it easier and more efficient to distribute incentives for adopting best practices. For example, coffee farmers often need financial support to adopt practices such as stumping (cutting trees back almost to the ground), because it can take years to see the return on investment. A combination of technologies, including mobile banking for direct payment, remote sensing (satellite/drone) for practice validation, and distributed applications (e.g. blockchain smart contracts), can ensure that loans or incentives go directly to farmers who implement best practices – meaning the farmers take home more income each year.

There are also mobile applications for data collection. When we have better data, we are better able to support farmers and entrepreneurs through credit and improved agricultural inputs. For example, satellite and drone data can give us important information about plant health and soil quality. We can use this information to determine what types of seeds, fertilizer, and other inputs will be necessary in a given area, then tailor our training accordingly.

How are cell phones and mobile money transforming banking in developing countries?

–  Stan

Cell phones and e-payments can help people who do not have formal banking create a credit record for themselves. Many people in the informal sector don’t keep records and don’t have a transaction history, meaning they cannot benefit from banking services. Without this transaction history, it is difficult for them to prove that they have an income, assets, or even a real business. Using cell phones and mobile money makes it easier for people to interact with the formal sector. In countries with a competitive mobile money/banking sector, farmers can benefit from decreased fees for business transactions, and increased revenue as a result of easier payment mechanisms.

Despite all of the benefits of mobile technology, there are still some disadvantages that we have to keep in mind throughout our work. For example, information manipulation is much easier in the digital space. This kind of manipulation can be anything from deepfakes to marketing campaigns. It’s important to keep these vulnerabilities in mind when rolling out new technologies.

Technology can be a powerful tool for improving lives in developing countries, but how can we make sure that it is inclusive, rather than perpetuating poverty?

– Anonymous

First, we need to make inclusivity an explicit goal of our programs. To do this, we need to establish ways to measure and account for it at the outset of project design. Our gender team is doing great work in this area. Second, we need to have full user and field engagement in developing use cases for new technology. In doing so, we make sure we’re not imposing technology on a community, but developing it with their input and buy-in. Finally, we should develop applications or engaging systems integration support locally (in-country) when possible. For example, increasingly, we are seeing technology hubs develop in Africa, and TechnoServe wants to support the development of these skills.