"We don't do sugar-coating!", says the CEO of the East African technology company mShamba when introducing me to iPlus, an acronym for "Information-Plus": a tablet with an in-built projector that is used for interactive training videos in the education of smallholder farmers (see image 1). He further emphasizes that private sector innovation is most needed to develop Tanzania's smallholder agriculture. In doing so, he positions himself, his innovation and his company in distinction to what he calls “the wasteful and inefficient projects of the public sector or NGOs” (CEO mShamba, 2020, personal communication).

Image 1: Introduction of iPlus (own photograph)

Innovation and Development

In this conviction, the CEO of mShamba is not alone: Puns such as "Silicon Savanna", "Silicon Zanzibar" or "Silicon Dar" show how innovation is moving around the world under the sign of the US-American tech scene. Expecting to inspire innovative places, transformative visions and entrepreneurial spirit, it has spilled over into the development sector. Major development organizations define how they want to improve “the lives of children and their families through new or better products, services and systems” (UNICEF, 2013). Innovation seems to proliferate, to be almost universally applicable: everything and everyone can be innovative. Yet these innovations do not even have to be new per se; the Oxford University’s Humanitarian Innovation Project characterizes them “not as novelty or invention but as the adaptation of products or processes to a particular context. It is based on the recognition that there may be alternative, untapped solutions (…) ‘out there’" (Betts et al., 2012: 85).

Innovating Agriculture in the Global South

The adaptability of technologies and knowledge to a particular local context (Krause, 2012: 224-225) plays a key role in agricultural development. The limits of technology transfer have already been discussed in many fields. Jacobsen (2021), for example, highlights this for the urban context of transport systems, stressing the critique of the notion of one-to-one transfer embedded in policy circles. For the agricultural sector, the Green Revolution shows that this basic assumption was also a feature of approaching rural development. However, the failure to deliver long-promised gains has drawn attention to the fact that neither two landscapes nor the transfer and operation of technologies to them are alike. Therefore, pure technology transfer has recently been replaced by innovative approaches to technology adaptation in agricultural landscapes (Fejerskov, 2017: 1; Tilley, 2011; USAID, 2018: 33). This includes the experimental adaptation of digital technologies in pilot projects (Bassi, 2010: 6-7). During pilot projects, technology companies, experts and programmers are continuously adapting the technology to local environments and farming practices to address information gaps. The mechanisms of technology adaptability should lead to a breakthrough in large-scale data, need-based use and sustainable economic gains. Innovation in agricultural development through digital technologies, experimental practices and private sector actors raises thereby the prospect of revolutionizing the idea, practice and impact of development.

Considering postcolonial studies, post-development debates and the radical critique of Western modernity, it is questionable whether such notions of innovation are not just a new guise of development as modernization. Economic rationales and profit-driven action may go hand in hand with claims of universal knowledge. The dominance of Western technology (companies), again, has the potential to exercise oppressive mechanisms. Along these lines, Krause (2013: 224) wonders “whether Innovation is the new Big Push or may it lead to a post-Development phase?” Drawing on ethnographic engagement with iPlus and mShamba, I show how experiments outside of the sciences reveal relentlessly how contradictory logics and approaches can be deployed in the name of innovation. Jellis (2018: 53 f.) urges scientists to bring the transformative potential of experimentation back into the sciences because “although it carries with it a good deal of epistemic baggage, not least its association with positivism, reclaiming experiment is an opportunity to reflect on the ends of experiment and to think about how certain forms of experimentation serve to redefine problems for researchers.” In the case of experimentally adapting iPlus, I show how technologies are neither the recipe for success nor the ruin of the Global South. However, all the contradictions, ruptures, and ambivalences in between point to questions about what role technologies, science, and connectivity can play in the postmodern world to which iPlus is introduced.

iPlus by mShamba

mShamba describes the iPlus technology as an e-extension system designed to make farmer training more accessible and cost-effective (see image 2). Farming practices are to benefit from informed decisions and become more profitable. To achieve this, mShamba relies on two technical components: First, a tablet with a projector (Image 1). It contains multi-media material of scientific basics for agricultural practices such as climatology, soil science, or plant physiology. Second, text messages contain time-sensitive advice on farming practices, weather and market information. mShamba creates the content in collaboration with companies, universities and farmers from pioneering regions. Then it is further adapted to the areas of application (Progress Report mShamba, 2022).

Image 2: iPlus Service and Actors (own figure)

Introducing iPlus to Mandera – Privatisation

Mandera was one of several pilot areas for iPlus. The village is in the center of Tanzania and has about 1,000 inhabitants who live mainly from maize and sesame cultivation (see image 3). Since most villagers are out of reach of formal agricultural training structures, their education is to be provided by iPlus. The technology did not come to Mandera directly through mShamba, but the contact came about through an international NGO which finances the service of mShamba on the one hand. On the other, the NGO has been active in Mandera for a while setting up several Village Community Banks (VICOBA). The weekly VICOBA-meetings were the first contact of the representative of mShamba, who introduced iPlus at one of these meetings (see image 4).

While there was a lot of talk at headquarters of mShamba about business and how tough business is, looking at this constellation of actors, this service is funded like any other NGO project. The financial risk for a purely commercial approach is high. Losses would be severe if mShamba invested in piloting yet not enough tech-savvy farmers willing to pay for an e-extension system would be found (CEO mShamba, 2020, personal communication). While the company is flanked by orthodox development projects, the iPlus content ironically aims to awaken farmers’ entrepreneurial spirit to make riskier investments in their land. This is why mShamba mainly targets farmers with more financial resources.

Image 3: Agricultural landscape (own photograph)
Image 4: Introducing iPlus (Progress Report mShamba, 2022)

The Race to Register – Gamification

At one of the VICOBA-meetings, where villagers came together to jointly strengthen their financial base and make small investments, the mShamba representative demonstrated iPlus. Once farmers were excited about the technology, their personal data were collected to sign them for the agronomic information service and tailored text messages. This registration was a lengthy process. The questionnaire included data such as age, gender, land size, crops grown and income. mShamba circumvented this task as this farmer described:

"mShamba people arrived and asked for those who had smartphones. […] They installed an mShamba-internal registration app on our phones. We were told to register as many farmers as possible until the mShamba representative returned to the village after three weeks. Some did the work, some did not. Later, they selected those who had registered the most farmers and they were given these tablets as a reward to teach the farmers.” (Female Farmer, 2020, personal communication)

Combined logics of a sales commission where no one shares in the profit, with the idea of competition without market development and data leaks without agreeing to terms and conditions, is what makes the gamified strategy. Thus, mShamba's database grows with the promise of a tablet and little work for the company's staff involved. The work involved in this “participatory approach” (Progress Report mShamba, 2022) of introducing an innovation into the pilot area is largely carried out by unpaid and hidden labor.

Despite this, farmers in Mandera feel that the teaching materials on the tablet are much more comprehensible and convincing especially through the technical mediation (Male Farmer, 2020, personal communication). This expresses the great confidence and trust of the farmers in the technology.

Adapting Agricultural Knowledge – Datafication

When I asked the CEO of mShamba about the growing reliance of farmers on their technology, he proudly described the reach of his successful business model by saying, "Farmers are farmers. Whether in Malawi, Ghana or Uganda, farmers and their problems are the same everywhere" (CEO mShamba, Dar es Salaam, 05.03.2020). He showed the training literature from which the content is taken, as well as a list of prepared text messages on maize cultivation that are simply adapted to the season and language (Figures 5 and 6). Unlike local adaptation of content, the information on agricultural knowledge and practices remains generic.

Image 5: Literature for Agronomic Advice (own photograph)
Image 6: Advisory-SMS for Maize Cultivation (Internal Documents, mShamba)

The individual messages are thus a scam to gather farmer data. Neither the customization of the language nor the adjustment of the timing of the SMS requires the data of the farmers. In other words, the e-extension system is not as adapted as it is being marketed. However, individual farmer data is needed to maintain the business model of the mShamba, because the data is being traded (CEO mShamba, 2020, personal communication). There is great value for agricultural input dealers, seed companies and machinery manufacturers to know the key data of their new potential customers. Despite this business model, many of the farmers are totally excited about the text messages, as this female farmer states:

"Those messages were really helpful. First, we were told to prepare the land on time, find modified seeds, plant on time, weed on time, apply fertilizer... Eh! Before we were lying to ourselves because of financial hardship and we delayed all those practices. Whereas when you don’t weed on time, it lowers your harvest this and that percentage! For this reason, the messages insist: Weed during this and that week!" (Female Farmer, 2020, personal communication)

Enduring Contradictions – Development in Postmodernity

After one year of pilot project, the advisory SMS failed due to a technical error and then the funding ran out. On the one hand, the farmers were disappointed, but on the other hand, the next sales staff were ready to demonstrate a new technology in a VICOBA meeting.

These empirical insights suggest that innovation is neither the new Big Push nor ushering in a post-development phase. Privately driven digital pilot projects do not break away from either an epistemic or a technological fix of development. Yet privatization, gamification and datafication do not merely reproduce modern logics. Rather, these mechanisms simultaneously serve to minimize and increase financial risk, build and harness trust for data, as well as universalize and customize content. The digital pilot of mShamba shows how modern categories can still be found but are experimentally reassembled. In the process, iPlus, as an innovation in the Global South that involves experimental approaches to development, unfolds contradictory logics and implications. While modernity never allowed for contradictory narratives, postmodernity represents a contradiction in terms, as “the term ‘postmodern’ implies contradiction of the modern without transcendence of it. Or perhaps it’s the continuation of the Modern and its transcendence” (Clarke, 2006: 109).

Getting back to the tough business that mShamba's CEO talked about in the Dar es Salaam office – even if it turned out to be not all that tough, what mShamba and iPlus are doing may indeed not be "sugar-coating". Rather, it is an experiment outside of the sciences that relentlessly reveals how contradictory logics and approaches can be that are deployed in the name of innovation. Ultimately, experimentation outside of science, while morally and ethically questionable, demonstrates in a very honest way how scientists could and should turn to new questions and answers. The advent of technologies like iPlus forces us to admit that postmodern sciences must relearn to recognize, admit and endure contradictions.


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Astrid Matejcek is PhD candidate in Geography at the University of Mainz, Germany. Her interest is in human-technology-environment relations, with an empirical focus on agricultural transformation in East Africa.