The Top Tech Innovations That Fought Poverty in 2021

When designed and applied in accordance with local needs, technology can dramatically improve income and opportunities for low-income people worldwide. See how tech solutions changed the lives of entrepreneurs and smallholder farmers in TechnoServe’s programs this past year.

Women working hard in Uganda

To build on the promise of technology to scale and improve impact in the fight against poverty, TechnoServe created TechnoServe Labs in 2019. This initiative brings partners together to implement promising technology in low-income countries that will help more people lift themselves out of poverty. 

In a time of uncertainty and increasing need for remote connections, see how these top tech innovations helped TechnoServe’s clients improve their livelihoods despite steep odds in 2021.

1. Distance Learning Scales Business Success

Distance learning technologies, which make it easier to teach new skills without meeting in person, have jumped to the top of the tech pile thanks to COVID-19

TechnoServe programs quickly started using distance learning when the world went into lockdown and it became difficult to physically reach people in many countries. 

Now, 70% of TechnoServe entrepreneurship programs use some form of digitally enabled distance learning, with micro-retail and agriculture not far behind. 

Distance learning technologies include many different tools, such as:

  • Video tutorials on YouTube
  • Peer-to-peer learning communities on WhatsApp
  • Individual business consulting by phone
  • SMS and mobile-based training programs 
  • Chatbots
Screenshot of TechnoServe’s Spanish WhatsApp training

In Kenya, for instance, TechnoServe uses a mobile phone training program to help entrepreneurs adapt their businesses to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. Across Central America, we use distance learning technologies such as WhatsApp business training to help farmers in remote areas access material – especially during strict lockdowns. 

This has enabled coffee farmers like Audelly Picado to learn key techniques for improving her crops, despite living in a remote part of Nicaragua. “The videos and manuals that [TechnoServe] sends to my cell phone have taught me the importance of pruning my coffee plantation,” she says. 

Although Audelly was alone in the pandemic in many ways, distance learning helped her find answers when the trainers couldn’t visit. “The trainers are always attentive to my queries through WhatsApp, and we constantly participate in forums and virtual conferences about good coffee-growing practices,” she says. The mix of distance learning and strong remote support from trainers is integral to the program. 

The whole distance learning system revolves around a single idea: relevant content delivered across multiple channels makes it possible to reach more people in remote locations.

2. Geospatial and Machine Learning Save Time, Effort, and Money

TechnoServe has hundreds of teams on the ground helping farmers around the world. But they can’t be everywhere at once. 

TechnoServe uses machine learning, which teaches a computer to do a repetitive task, to classify images from satellites and drones. Machine learning and satellite/drone technology make the work on the ground more efficient and literally give field teams a new perspective on their work – footage from a drone, for example. 

Cashew trees in Benin as seen from a drone

In Benin, TechnoServe and a team from the University of Minnesota trained a machine learning computer model to identify where cashew trees are – or aren’t – in satellite images. As the model becomes progressively more accurate, it will allow program staff to quickly determine which farms need more support or which areas may need more nurseries for replanting initiatives. This saves time, effort, and money. 

In 2022, this project will be expanded to document work on carbon sequestration, where carbon is pulled out of the atmosphere by planting more cashew trees. Satellite images will help farmers identify gaps in their farms where they can plant new trees, and farmers will be paid to plant new cashew trees to fill in these gaps. With the ongoing challenge of climate change, this could help countries across Africa pull more carbon out of the atmosphere.

3. Digital Tools Improve Access to Finance

For people who don’t have a way to save money, access loans, use a bank, or receive digital payments, growing their farm or their business is a struggle. 

The DreamSave app

In many rural communities, informal lending and savings groups help people pool their money together. And while these groups track records in a ledger book, there’s no digital record of these transactions, which means savings and loan repayments can’t be used easily to create a savings and credit history to get larger loans from a bank.  

A TechnoServe partnership with DreamStart Labs is working to address that challenge through the digitization of informal lending groups. If they’re connected to the formal market, people can then get loans to buy tools, seeds, inventory, and other necessities for growing their farm or business.

Currently being piloted by TechnoServe, the DreamSave app will soon connect groups of cashew farmers in Benin to the formal financial sector by creating digital records and a history of their informal savings and lending.

“The way we did things before was time-consuming, and keeping records was very difficult,” explains one DreamSave user. “Sometimes you have so much to do…when you use paper books, the calculations can take up to two hours.” Meetings would be spent recording transactions and balancing the ledger by hand while the cash box was out. But the digital DreamSave app can cut meeting times in half, freeing up time that can be used to train groups on improved farming practices (via the same app used for the savings group meetings).

4. Quality Assessment Apps Improve Transparency and Power for Small-Scale Businesses

Smallholder farmers often face challenges with accurate, efficient quality assessment of their crops, limiting the prices they can receive. TechnoServe addressed this by developing quality assessment apps for two key cash crops that benefit millions of smallholder farmers.

TechnoServe’s cashew quality app gives cashew farmers and buyers an easier, simpler way to measure cashew quality based on criteria like moisture and weight. When buyers and sellers score cashews with the same rules – a “common language” – it helps reduce inaccuracy and discrepancies that can drive prices down. 

TechnoServe created a similar app to help coffee farmers assess the quality of their coffee cherries (the fruit harvested directly from the coffee tree, before its seeds are extracted). Created in partnership with a volunteer team at Datakind and an intern from Carnegie Mellon University Africa, the app uses machine learning to assess the ripeness of the cherries, which is directly tied to coffee quality and price. 

A variety of cherries at different stages of ripeness

Farmers can take a photo of the top of a sack full of harvested coffee cherries, and the app tells them how many of the cherries are ripe, underripe, or overripe based on the color. This provides a ripeness score that will help farmers make better decisions about when to pick their coffee in order to get the best price. 

And because individual apps often are not the ideal solution, TechnoServe is also working  with engineers from the software company Okta to build a bundled solution environment for micro-retailers. A new partnership between Okta and TechnoServe’s micro-retail teams, enabled by a grant from the Okta for Good Innovation Lab, will develop a collection of existing apps for small business owners that will help them improve their marketing, finance, and operations. 

In all of these projects, partnerships are the key to success. TechnoServe Labs works with a variety of corporate, university and non-profit partners, ranging from interns at Carnegie-Mellon University Africa to the team at the University of Minnesota, to corporate partners such as Okta and DreamStart Labs, and non-profit teams at Datakind – all commited to use technology for good.

All of these innovations will evolve and deliver even greater impact in the fight against poverty in 2022. Watch this space for updates!

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