Technologies for development: the silver bullet?

Mobile technologies can offer great solutions in the fight against diseases, but nevertheless face-to-face communication remains equally important. Co-design of these technologies – involving users in the design of digital innovations – proved to be key.

Global environmental change is affecting biodiversity, health, agriculture and water systems, and endangering the existence of many societies that depend on agriculture for a living. In this context, timely, relevant and accurate information – for example on water levels, the extent of plant pests or prevalence of disease-carrying insects – is crucial. But this information is often lacking, or access is limited.

Banana farmers invited to play the Musa Game were recorded to collect audio and video data and trace game progress.
Banana farmers invited to play the Musa Game were recorded to collect audio and video data and trace game progress.

How can life-science knowledge, digital technologies and innovation be leveraged to address development challenges in crop, water, health and wildlife management? The aim of the EVOCA programme was to answer these questions by introducing mobile technologies in six different case studies, mostly related to diseases, such as potato late blight in Ethiopia, malaria in Rwanda and tick-borne diseases in Kenya.

‘Policymakers often see these issues as an individual problem,’ says Cees Leeuwis, programme leader and Professor of Knowledge, Technology and Innovation at Wageningen University. ‘Extension officers in Ethiopia tell farmers, for instance, that they must spray, while most farmers don’t have the financial means to pay for these expensive investments. Yet those diseases require collective solutions, involving farmers, nomads, government and others,’ Leeuwis stresses. ‘Collaboration is required to prevent diseases from spreading and to combat them. This means reaching agreement on the rules to which all farmers should adhere: monitoring and burning diseased plants, preventing water run-off, cleaning boots and tools, etc. But generally, nobody calls for collective action, and a mandate to bring different actors together is lacking.’

Involved countries, disciplines of WUR and partners


Ghana, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda



Number of PhDs


Wageningen University chair groups involved

Environmental Sciences: Earth System Science (ESS), Laboratory of Geo-information Science and Remote Sensing (GRS), Wildlife Ecology and Conservation Group (WEC), Water Systems and Global Change (WSG)
Plant Sciences: Centre for Crop Systems Analysis (CSA), Laboratory of Entomology (ENT)
Social Sciences: Strategic Communication (COM), Knowledge, Technology and
Innovation (KTI), Public Administration and Policy (PAP)


International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA); International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI); International Potato Centre (CIP); Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA); Grameen Foundation; Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA); Foundation for Sustainable Development (FSD); Kumasi Institute of Technology, Energy and Environment (KITE); Integrated Water & Agricultural Development Ghana LTD (IWAD); Veterinary Services Kenya; College of Medicine and Health Sciences, University of Rwanda; MDF West Africa; University for Development Studies, Tamale Ghana

Connectivity and collective action

The intention of the EVOCA programme was ‘to create new forms of connectivity that can mobilize actors,’ Leeuwis explains. Five farmer-led Environmental Virtual Observatories (EVOs) were launched in four African countries. These ICT-based platforms enabled users to share environmental information, to connect with others, and to coordinate actions.

Participant in a malaria citizen science project demonstrating his mosquito trap.
Participant in a malaria citizen science project demonstrating his mosquito trap.

In Ethiopia, the programme experimented with a WhatsApp-like app and distributed smartphones to investigate its impact on collective action. In Ghana, WhatsApp and Telegram were used to connect extension agencies with researchers so they could exchange experiences on how to fight a new pest: the fall armyworm. In Rwanda, a citizen science project was set up with the aim of engaging communities in malaria mosquito surveillance and monitoring. In two other cases, games were developed to help participants gain insights into mutual dependency.
These technologies and interventions proved to be important in communicating about crop diseases and fostering collective responses, says Leeuwis. ‘They can help with data collection and disease monitoring. Farmers could send pictures of the disease in their field. WhatsApp groups and other social media platforms especially offered a space where members could encourage each other to contribute, which motivated them to comply with agreements and rules.’


Nonetheless, conventional, face-to-face interaction remained critically important as well. ‘Technologies are only a means … they need to be embedded in a learning environment. It takes an in-depth learning process to arrive at collective rules, and to ensure that everybody participates and accepts that sanctions will be applied to those who don’t contribute. If a potato producer does not comply with the agreed-upon rules to provide disease-free seedlings, there must be a mechanism to exclude that seed material from the market,’ Leeuwis explains.

Technologies are a means, and need to be embedded in a learning environment
Cees Leeuwis, programme leader

Research with Ethiopian potato farmers and Rwandan banana farmers helped to understand the positive and negative effects of (digital) communication interventions on individual and collective action and performance. Leeuwis: ‘We saw people providing advice, motivating others to take action and calling upon them not to be a free-rider. But we also noticed that increased insight into mutual dependence can stimulate counter-productive actions. People thinking: my neighbour’s investing, so no need for me to do so as well.’

Technologies can also easily exclude people, says Leeuwis. ‘Programmes that promote digital tools are often too optimistic about people’s possibilities, their access and skills to make use of them. In addition, there are concerns about ownership of data and privacy issues.’

The use of technologies as a solution is sometimes overrated
Leon Mutesa, director of the Center for Human Genetics

'The use of technologies as a solution is sometimes overrated', adds Professor Leon Mutesa, director of the Center for Human Genetics at the College of Medicine and Health Sciences, part of the University of Rwanda, and involved in malaria research. ‘Access in rural areas is also very limited. Some communities prefer offline methods, like reporting on paper instead of on a mobile phone. In one of the communities, a community team for malaria action engaged village leaders and local government. They openly discussed solutions and it worked very well.’


Co-design of technologies proved to be key. By involving users in the design of digital innovations, farmers’ confidence in their capacity to use and benefit from smartphones was enhanced, says Leeuwis. In Ghana, co-design helped to integrate indigenous knowledge about weather and climate with information provided by advanced digital forecasting systems. In Rwanda, community members were engaged in the development of technologies to collect and report on mosquito species and the occurrence of malaria. ‘It empowers communities and enhances their ownership,’ says Mutesa. ‘They have context-specific knowledge and skills, and thus know what works and what doesn’t.’

PhD student facilitates a farmer field school on potato disease management.
PhD student facilitates a farmer field school on potato disease management.


The rules for collective disease management should also be co-designed, stresses Leeuwis: ‘Agreements on how participants are going to jointly fight potato blight, with what means, and how they will monitor the disease and community members’ adherence to rules.’ A genuinely participative approach is not that common: ‘We still see top-down interventions and innovations, often due to constraints in time or means.’ At the same time, he adds, co-design does not necessarily solve power or (digital) capacity challenges. Nor can it guarantee that the resulting digital innovation is fully inclusive.

More than a PowerPoint

Each case study – except one – involved two PhD students from different disciplinary backgrounds: one from the social sciences and one from the natural sciences. All were supervised by a multidisciplinary team, which made it possible to study complex problems and to promote and study collective actions from diverse perspectives.

They had to work as a team, and this takes much more than occasional exchange through PowerPoint presentations
Cees Leeuwis, programme leader

‘They had to work as a team,’ says Leeuwis. ‘And this takes much more than occasional exchanges through PowerPoint presentations. To really develop an understanding of how the system works, how technological and social components interact, you have to go to the field together and do interviews jointly.’

In Rwanda, the collaboration between entomological and social science disciplines was important to understand not only the technicalities of malaria mosquito surveillance and integrated vector control, but also communities’ motivation for, perceptions of and barriers to participation, adds Mutesa.

A research assistant conducts a questionnaire with an extension agent on the beta version of a smartphone application for diagnosing and monitoring wilt disease and providing information on agronomic practices to banana farmers.
A research assistant conducts a questionnaire with an extension agent on the beta version of a smartphone application for diagnosing and monitoring wilt disease and providing information on agronomic practices to banana farmers.


According to Leeuwis, an interdisciplinary approach leads to integrated solutions and integration of knowledge. ‘It also increases understanding of potential tensions and conflicts in society if you study the problem from different angles. This intensive collaboration proved to be very enriching, for the students as well as the supervisors and the university in general. It works best, however, when the two PhD students have the same supervisors, who ensure coordinated and coherent work.’


Although COVID-19 halted fieldwork and workshops, and limited opportunities to engage with policymakers and other stakeholders, EVOCA yielded a lot of learning, says Leeuwis. ‘Farmers in Ethiopia and Rwanda learned about crop disease transmission mechanisms and mutual interdependence. Community members in Kenya gained more knowledge about tick-borne diseases and control practices, while Rwandan community members learned how to collect mosquitoes, identify species, and develop community-level malaria control measures.’ Several policy briefs have been developed to contribute to future policy dialogues. ‘The synthesis study revealed that enhanced connectivity and information provision can indeed help to strengthen collective responses to pests and diseases, provided there is sufficient space and attention for deliberation and co-design.’

Wageningen Integration For Impact

In order to tackle the world's pressing development-related social problems and to support the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030, research for development must apply far more innovative interdisciplinary and participatory approaches.

That is why WUR launched a research programme in 2000 that is in line with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

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