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  • Department of Global Development
  • Digital Agriculture
  • Global Development
Powerful digital technologies are reshaping agriculture and food supply chains around the world, yet access barriers to these tools remain largely unknown. A new effort in Cornell’s Department of Global Development is exploring adoption of digital agriculture tools, especially among women and smallholder farmers in developing countries.

Led by Jaron Porciello, associate director of research data engagement, the research initiative will study inclusive digital services for farmers and the potential benefits for productivity and income gains for smallholder producers. The project is funded through a $349,000 award from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The eight-month study aims to establish a base of evidence of digital farmer services intervention areas and key outcomes. Using machine-learning techniques, the team will map, describe and synthesize existing literature to assess the extent to which digital agriculture improves access to and adoption of increasingly necessary information and services.

While digital agriculture has the power to improve the social, economic and environmental sustainability of farms, particularly small-scale producers and small-and-medium-size enterprises, it can also dramatically widen the divide of knowledge, wealth and access to resources among farmers around the world, according to Porciello.

“As a social scientist, I am always looking to understand the context and environment of proposed services and solutions in relation to the technical solutions that are proposed,” she said.

Marginalized communities face barriers due to socioeconomic, geographic or gender-based constraints. For example, women are less likely than men to own a cell phone and to make use of digital resources. Understanding these impacts will provide insights into how and when farmers access financial, advisory, smart farming, agronomic/soil, and market-related information, products and services.

“There’s a real appetite for donors and scholars to have more information about the role of services for farmers in the digital age, and to have all of the information aggregated and analyzed in one place,” Porciello said. “This is a terrific opportunity to bring together expertise from across Cornell, particularly the new Department of Global Development, along with colleagues from the Cornell Institute for Digital Agriculture to examine the evidence from the lens of physical science and social science.”

Through the review of published literature and expert interviews, the study will also identify how performance and impact of digital agricultural tools are measured, and subsequently develop recommendations on priority research areas. These recommendations are expected to inform a whitepaper summarizing the state of the evidence and the creation of a research and learning agenda for the Gates Foundation, USAID, and other donors.

“Digital agriculture has tantalizing potential to uplift the lives of hundreds of millions of farmers all over the world, but only if smallholder farmers get timely, affordable and customized access to both the hardware and software that powers these technologies,” said Ed Mabaya, senior research associate in global development who launched the flagship digital agriculture program at the African Development Bank in 2019. “This study will provide a crucial understanding of the gaps faced by farmers who too often have been bypassed by agricultural innovation.” 


Kelly Merchan is a communications specialist in the Department of Global Development.

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