The digital divide for food, land, and water systems: What is it and what can be done?

A proposed framework and innovative digital inclusivity index aim to address marginalization.

A proposed framework and innovative digital inclusivity index aim to address marginalization.

By Felix Ouko Opola, Simon Langan, Indika Arulingam, Niyati Singaraju, Deepa Joshi, Charlotte Schumann, Inga Jacobs-Mata and Karen Nortje

Mulugeta Ayene / WLE-CGIAR
Mulugeta Ayene / WLE-CGIAR

Who gets left behind in the digital transformation?

If you are reading this, you have access to a smart digital device and have the ways and means to use it and, hopefully, benefit from the range of services it offers. Digital processes are starting to dominate how we interact with the world, dominating communication outside of face-to-face meetups. This array and depth of digital processes has been referred to as the fourth industrial revolution, disrupting almost every industry in every country, according to the World Economic Forum. However, questions and concerns have been raised over how we can make this transformation equitable across communities which do not have access to digital technologies, services, and infrastructure, lack the skills required to use these digital innovations, or find these innovations inappropriate for their day-to-day needs. These inequalities have been referred to as the digital divide and are more apparent in rural communities of less industrialized regions of the world where livelihoods are closely and intricately intertwined with food production and distribution as well as the natural resources linked to it such as land and water. Specific groups of people are marginalized from the digital transformation process such as women, indigenous communities and youth, particularly in rural areas. Without a careful and proactive consideration of these digital divides, digital technologies and services will continue to benefit the more affluent and educated at the expense of those most in need.

Minding the gap

Current understandings of the digital divide focus on how accessible and usable digital technologies and services are to marginalized groups of people. We think this is insufficient, since it leaves out other important aspects of digital inclusion: providing tangible, day-to-day benefits, featuring inclusive participation in their design and development and ensuring safeguards against potential harm. A research collaboration, led by the International Water Management Institute, has proposed a holistic framework as a tool featuring a list of standard dimensions and indicators of digital inclusivity to fill these gaps. The specifics and underpinning indicators that make up this framework, as well as an innovative digital inclusivity index has just been submitted by the authors for peer review.

The framework

The key terms of this proposed framework are as follows:

Digital innovation: The application of new or improved digital tools, ideas, and skills as solutions to social, economic, and environmental challenges. Some examples are the Internet of Things, use of drones, remote sensing and social media platforms. We focus on innovation because we would like to develop a solution-oriented index rather than an index that diagnoses digital inequality.

Digital ecosystem: We think digital innovation occurs through collaboration and co-learning between different actors such as technology developers, rural communities, government officials, civil society and funders who make up a digital ecosystem, rather than through ‘experts’ driving the digital innovation process.

Targeted actors: In food, land and water systems, education, wealth, age, gender and social status are identified as the factors related to social exclusion from digital innovation processes. The exclusion of a group depends on context and can vary in time. We therefore used the term targeted actors to refer to the specific group of people selected and targeted for inclusion by an innovation, organization or intervention.

Food systems: Activities, rules and actors involved in the production, distribution and consumption, and disposal of food. Some activities within food systems are directly linked to the use and management of water and land resources. These form part of the food system.

The index development process:

From a systematic targeted literature review and synthesis of a range of published articles and work on digital innovation we have collated information of the five key dimensions of the framework. In parallel, we consulted stakeholders in six countries (Rwanda, Kenya, Bangladesh, India, Guatemala, South Africa) to identify potential users and functions of a digital inclusivity framework and index. This was done through stakeholder workshops and informal interviews. These inputs, together with work done with a digital design consultant, provided us with a digital inclusivity framework and a prototype digital inclusivity index (DII).

As the DII is under peer review, we are not presenting the results here. Instead, we will focus on the five dimensions of the overarching framework:

  1. Access: Digital infrastructure and digital innovation packages are intentionally made known, available, and affordable to targeted actors. To improve and achieve this investment in human-centered design, differing gender and age needs/requirements and investment in public infrastructure.
  2. Use: Targeted actors have skills, opportunities and desire to use any promoted digital innovations. Here needs are likely to be focused on the provision of targeted training along with better understanding of differing needs and skills of differing users.
  3. Benefits: Digital innovation has tangible and verifiable benefits to targeted actors that can be sustained. Through greater co-development, participation and testing with potential beneficiaries as to their needs and continued use of digital innovations some reduction in the existing digital divide could be addressed.
  4. Participation: Targeted actors participate in the design, development and governance of digital innovation. This could be achieved, in part, through the integration of scientific and indigenous data and experiences and through the greater use of participatory approaches to design, development and governance of digital innovations.
  5. Consequences: Risks and potential negative consequences of digital innovation to targeted actors are identified and mitigated to ensure there are no negative or unintended consequences. A step towards this would be to establish more open and shared data while guarding against misuse and exploitation of personalized data.

We recognize that there are degrees of overlap and synergy across and between the five dimensions. The DII will recognize this in proposing how it should be operationalized.

A parallel consideration to the framework was to gather information on the needs of different stakeholders via a series of consultations and internal workshops, prioritizing food, land and water systems:  These stakeholders are as follows:

For digital innovation social enterprises: As a tool to collaborate with other actors on digital inclusivity, such as government or donor agencies.

NGOs working on digital innovation: To expand their perspectives on digital inclusivity and incorporate this into their monitoring and evaluation approaches.

For knowledge and research institutions: To identify and collaborate with funders, e.g., through assisting in grant writing and application, and to influence policy.

Next steps

To operationalize the index, create awareness, and make the index development process inclusive, a range of activities and resources are currently being planned for and undertaken under the CGIAR Initiative on Digital Innovation which researches pathways to accelerate the transformation towards sustainable and inclusive agrifood systems by generating research-based evidence and innovative digital solutions. These include:

  • Publishing of a peer reviewed article and grey literature
  • Testing and validation of the DII
  • Populating case studies
  • Refining and publishing a Beta version of the DII
  • Establishing a web portal
  • Inputting data for AI and machine learning

We thank all funders who supported this research through their contributions to CGIAR Trust Fund.

Further reading: Beyond the digital divide: a multi-dimensional approach to enabling digital inclusivity in food, land, and water systems

Funders & Partners:

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