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The Digitalization of Agriculture and the (Un)Changing Dynamics of Rural Smallholder Farming Systems in Ghana, Sub-Sahara Africa

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Title: The Digitalization of Agriculture and the (Un)Changing Dynamics of Rural Smallholder Farming Systems in Ghana, Sub-Sahara Africa
Author: Abdulai, Abdul-Rahim
Department: Department of Geography, Environment and Geomatics
Program: Geography
Advisor: Fraser, Evan
Abstract: This dissertation explores the dynamics of agricultural digitalization in rural smallholder systems in Northern Ghana, Sub-Sahara Africa, with a focus on the 1) anticipated impacts, 2) nature of farmers' engagement, 3) factors that affect participation, 4) resulting changes to practices, and 5) the elements for successful digital futures. Given the novelties of digitalization, my multidisciplinary scholarly interests and exploratory intentions, I applied political-economy and social practices theoretical and analytical lens, with a mixed-method approach, combining document review, interviews, focus group discussions, observation, and surveys to address the objectives. I found that the digitalization of smallholders is being promoted as transformative by development actors (with potential neoliberal goals) without recourse to the embedded political-economic consequences. Yet, empirical results from Northern Ghana revealed superficial engagement by farmers, as participation and activeness in digital services are structurally hampered by low (digital) literacies and limited access to (digital) resources. Meanwhile, gender, phone ownership, ability to place phone calls, association with farm groups, and access to extension services influence the likelihood of participating and benefiting from digitalization services; however, critical inequities exist across these factors. Nonetheless, digital services may change livelihood practices (everyday routines and space-time rhythms) of farmers as new patterns of actions in season planning, how and when farmers plant, undertake husbandry activities, harvest, market and sell outputs emerge. Hence, I conclude that smallholder digitalization is uncritical detached from farmers’ lived realities. While prospects fodigital innovations to transform livelihoods may exist, the basic building blocks are so lacking that this potential is unlikely to be realized in the near term. Meanwhile, uncritical implementation of these tools is only likely to entrench existing inequities and create newer unfair power distributions. Thus, it is essential to move beyond the holistic propagation of digital innovations and the uncritical claims of transformativeness. Instead, we need a context-based 'digitalization for smallholders' that (re)focus the expectations towards incremental change in everyday social practices embedded in (African) farmers’ socio-political-economic realities. Thus, stakeholders must work towards inclusive digital access in smallholder systems, partly through establishing and integrating required materials, competencies, and meanings that bring digitalization to life across scales.
Date: 2022-08
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Related Publications: Abdulai, A. R. (2022). A New Green Revolution (GR) or Neoliberal Entrenchment in Agri-food Systems? Exploring Narratives Around Digital Agriculture (DA), Food Systems, and Development in Sub-Sahara Africa. The Journal of Development Studies. 58(8), 1588–1604. A-R (2022) Toward digitalization futures in smallholder farming systems in Sub-Sahara Africa: A social practice proposal. Front. Sustain. Food Syst. 6:866331. doi: 10.3389/fsufs.2022.866331

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