Muluneh Atinaf (Addis Ababa University) reflects on information systems design for digitalizing information flows in agricultural extension services (AEIS) in Ethiopia. Using a design-reality gaps lens, extant shortcomings are identified and recommendations for future AEIS design are given, focusing on the importance of aligning design with farmers’ established modes of information sharing.
Application of information and communication technology for development (ICT4D) has changed the lives of smallholder farmers and other stakeholders in many ways. ICT4D is embedded in a complex socio-technical context specific reality involving multi-stakeholder interactions and structures. Previous research focusing on binary understanding of availability, affordability, awareness, abilities, or agency leading to connecting the unconnected (Roberts and Hernandez, 2019), technology, design, or agency alone (Toyama, 2017) does not bring the desired impact. Moreover, silo solutions with firm-centric objectives do not fully address existing issues (Walsham, 2017), suggesting the need to shifting and positioning the focus of ICT4D research, from improving our understanding of “development” as empirical research to complementing this with analysis of how ICT can foster it (Sahay et al, 2017). Among others, improving inclusion of marginalized subjects in the development interventions (Masiero, 2018) and context-specific ICT4D theorizing research (Avgerou, 2017; Andoh-baidoo (2017) have been proposed to include the devoiced and to improve clarity of the knowledge contributed. Bringing the desired impact demands understanding the context specific socio-technical requirements of stakeholders in the entire value chain (at a service/ecosystem level) to guide further research rather than focusing on single solutions.
In this piece, I focus on the techniques to be followed to produce a comprehensive understanding of those socio-technical requirements in designing an information systems artifact leading to digitalizing information flow in agricultural extension service (AEIS) in Ethiopia. Transforming information flow to or from smallholder farmers and other stakeholders is an important process to enhance rural development (Karanasios and Slavova 2019; Slavova and Karanasios 2018) and to bring the desired change through ICT4D. AEIS is one of the mechanisms to disseminating agricultural information, typically through informal in-person contacts by ‘extension agents’ and increasingly through technology to smallholders to improve farming practices (Conley and Udry, 2010). Therefore, designing successful AEIS requires balancing the requirements of the technical and social systems as well as the interactions between the two and brings the two into equilibrium. An interactive voice response (IVR) based AEIS system, a common instance of IS involving users with low-literacy levels is examined to understand the extent that instantiated artifact meets the multi-stakeholder socio-technical requirements. The OPTIMISM framework which provides specific constructs to tease out the design-reality gaps (Heeks, 2002) and identify specific actions to be applied through analyzing the socio-technical requirements in a multi-stakeholder service system. However, it is criticized for focusing on the types of gaps than giving attention to the root causes and for its subjective process of classifying the issues under its dimensions. The use of the OPTIMISM dimension slightly differs from its usual application of organization-specific design-reality gap analysis.
From the result, it is possible to understand that AEIS involves interdependent stakeholders having defined roles and socio-technical requirements. The structural arrangements of stakeholders, their interactions, and the different work contexts provide useful information about the performance of the current artifact on use as well as guidance on future research and practice. The instantiated artifact is successful in many instances such as in providing interface for actors with low literacy levels and automating content endorsed from two organizations at a national level. The initiative made to help smallholder farmers and intermediaries to get generalized recommendations or generic messages, to store localized content using stakeholders’ local languages and orchestrating actors’ devices to the existing telecom infrastructure is an important step for digitalizing the multi-stakeholder service system. However, there are gaps in understanding the multiple realities embedded in a networked service system which is guided by actor-to-actor interactions of those multi-stakeholders. Lack of a full stack service, lack of/or limited actors’ participation in the process of AEIS, gaps in enabling interaction and actor-to-actor linkages within and across the AEIS structures, gaps in integrating the actors’ technology use contexts, the processes followed to build and provide context specific information, and lack of attention to the skills of stakeholders are the major gaps identified.
The gaps along the information dimension relate to sources of information, content, and its fitness to the purpose of addressing contextual local problems. Moreover, the stakeholders’ contribution in the process of information content development is another issue in the AEIS. Therefore, future AEIS design should give attention to on the ground realities specifically accommodating the cultural historical norms of information sharing, need for enabling actors as key stakeholders to co-create the AEIS, the actors desire to use the technologies for additional purposes in their day-to-day activities, ensuring transformation of information received to actions, addressing the stakeholders’ contexts (skills, language, technology use, and their tasks), enabling interactions and communication between actors. The role and functions of mobile technologies being applied and the telecom infrastructure can be used for a better strategy such as managing actors identities (as individuals, collectives, associations or organizations), their characteristics, roles, interactions, and agency in the multi-stakeholder AEIS. This enables personalized service offerings in the multi-stakeholder AEIS environment which in turn enhances actors’ trust and adoption of the system. The full report can be found here.