FAO, ITU and Zhejiang University shed lights jointly on the applications of digital technology and rural e-commerce for food production and security at WSIS Forum 2021


"We must change course because we are at a critical moment in our time - the world is risking not to achieve zero hunger by 2030",It is with those impacting words that Ismahane Elouafi, FAO Chief Scientist kicked off the session on "E Commerce for Agriculture and Rural Development", held on the 7th of May 2021 in close collaboration with the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and Zhejiang University under the WSIS Action Line C7:E-Agriculture at the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) Forum 2021, which topic this year focuses on ´ICTs for Inclusive, Resilient ad Sustainable Societies and Economies.  

This event marked another milestone in the collaboration between the two organizations and the university as this jointly organized webinar aimed to enhance cross-fertilization of ideas, innovation, knowledge and practices in the field of e-commerce. During this session, the overview of the ´Digital Agriculture Report: Rural E commerce: Experiences from China´ was also presented, as a fruit of the successful collaboration between FAO and ZJU, and which aim is to contribute further to the discussion on e-commerce for agriculture and rural development at the international community level. 

With 433 participants attending from all over the world, and 1,133 registrations, the great interest sparked by the session proves that innovation, digitalization and entrepreneurship are key nowadays to transform the agriculture and foods systems sector for a sustainable future. ´´A real transformation is needed and constitutes, therefore, one of the most powerful ways of changing course if we wish to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals´´ said the Chief Scientist, highlighting the alarming trends in the unsustainable management and use of resources as well as the subsequent importance of a strong joint commitment to enhance knowledge and share good practices in digital agriculture. 

As the new generation of digital technologies in agriculture and food systems, such as e-commerce, live broadcast, e-government and mobile banking practices has been developing at an extremely fast pace over the last years, e-commerce has now emerged in this context as a tool to provide advanced technical conditions that can provide effective solutions, necessary to tackle next century´s challenges, especially to bridge the digital gaps for small and family farmers. 

In these times of economic slowdown and uncertainty but also of incredible developments in innovative technologies, a wide range of experts coming from various organizations, institutions, academics, as well as the private sector gathered at WSIS for this particular event to discuss further the potential of rural e-commerce, focusing on how it can impact rural development positively in this new era of digital agriculture, boost farmers’ livelihoods and learn from each other. Speakers included representatives from the World Bank Group, ITUAfrican Development Bank(Afdb) Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), Alibaba Group, and Nampya Farmers Market, one of the winners of the Global AgriInno Challenge 2020, organized in December last year by FAO and Zhejiang University under the guiding principle of empowering agripreneurs to tackle the distribution and sale of agri-food products through innovation.

During the first part of the session, Dejan Jakovljevic, Director of FAO IT Services Division and Prof. WEI Longbao, Director of the Institute of Food and Agribusiness Management of Zhejiang University made a joint presentation on the ´Digital Agriculture Report: Rural E-commerce -- Experiences from China´, based on the experiences of successful business models and results of technology applications in the field of e-commerce in China. ´We hope that this report will contribute to methodologies, approaches and solutions that will help to accelerate inclusive and sustainable development in rural communities through digital innovation and e-commerce, with the aim of transforming the agri-food system´ says Prof Wei, highlighting the progresses made in the collaboration between FAO and ZJU since the signature of the memorandum of understanding in December 2019. Following on that, FAO and ZJU have also organized the Digital Agriculture Forum and the Global AgriInno Challenge in December 2020 mentioned above to enhance practice exchanges and knowledge sharing in the field of food and agriculture.

´The new e-commerce business models have transformed traditional commerce, value chains and cultures, either complementing them or creating new channels´ explained Dejan Jakovljevic. ´e-commerce constitutes then an undeniable engine of growth for digital agriculture, a real solution to deliver significant economic, social and environmental benefits´ he added, framing the background for the discussions to come. The joint presentation of FAO and ZJU showed then how the development of rural e-commerce improves the efficiency and productivity of agricultural production, accelerates the transformation of agri-food systems and achieves the sustainable development goals with concrete examples of China´s leading role in rural e-commerce, including its history, models and achievements, and illustrating it with case studies in several regions of the country. ´The establishment of an enabling ecosystem for rural e-commerce in China explains its success´ detailed Prof Wei ´It builds on strong policy support, industrial foundations, enabled access to markets through platforms, a well-organized logistics system, as well as digital capability enhancement, and could be considered as a model to be scaled up and replicated in many other regions of the world´. ´The report is the first digital report between FAO and ZJU and meant to be the first of an important series. We will share the link shortly and welcome more partners to join this major initiative in the future´ concluded Dejan Jakovljevic. 

The invited panellists then presented on the multidimensional aspects of e commerce. Parmesh Shah, from the World Bank Group, stressed the importance of the following points to make e commerce a success: ´data and connectivity, the need for a solid innovation ecosystem and farmers organization´.  Hani Eskandar, from ITU, which organization has been engaged in promoting E agriculture since 2003 through several activities, also insisted on the importance of the need to have a full digital ecosystem in place and announced the upcoming release of a study with FAO on digital agriculture in Africa, that includes 44 indicators (including infrastructure, business environment, agro innovation, etc) from many sources to draw an overarching picture of an enabling environment for e- commerce. The proposed FAO/ITU study report aims at setting a solid framework for regional and international players to better plan their investments, but also a baseline for each country to develop their own national digital agriculture strategy.  

Olukemi Afun-Ogidan from the AfdB continued the round of presentations by giving an overview of e-commerce in Africa, which is incipient in the continent (with only 2% of the economy driven by it, compared to 20% in China or the USA) but expected to grow, especially with the transformation driven by Covid, that triggered important changes in people 'behaviours, these being reflected in the access to food and agriculture products online as well as in the consumers´ preferences. ´This constitutes a crucial opportunity for the e commerce space especially for the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), that constitutes a unique market of 1 billion people over 55 countries, and more possibilities to create jobs´ highlights Mrs Afun- Ogidan. 

The Vice President of Alibaba, Luna Xing, presented then Alibaba´s vision to make business easier everywhere, in alignment with e-commerce principles. ´There are many challenges to be tackled when working with the farmers: helping them increase their incomes, familiarizing them with the digital tools, building specific channels to sell their products, building their brand, informing the customers accordingly...´ says Mrs Xing. ´Even if livestream has now become very popular, and we are setting many successful training and implementation programs, that cover now over 100 million villagers, there is still a long way to go as the population in China is huge and infrastructure is key to build sustainable e commerce´ she pointed out. 

Kieron Swift from the Inter-American development Bank also presented e-commerce as a huge opportunity space in the Latin America and Caribbean region. In this context, he presented briefly the Landscaping the Agritech Ecosystem for Smallholder Farmers in Latin America and the Caribbean report, prepared by GSMA and IDB Lab, based on the review of 131 digital agriculture tools, and that provides a market mapping and landscape analysis of the most prominent cases of digital disruption. He mentioned as well the Regional Agri Tech Challenge, organized by Compete Caribbean aimed at providing the Caribbean firms technical assistance in the agri food innovation sector. 

Mark Matovu, from Nampya farmer, finally presented the project that granted him the prize of the AgriIno Challenge:  a mobile-based platform connecting smallholder farmers with retailers, allowing daily deliveries of fresh food directly from farms and positioning itself as unique solution to address the inherent inefficiencies in the delivery of fresh products with better quality standards in East Africa with a significant positive impact for both producers and consumers. 

´FAO believes that e-commerce to rural areas will increase farmers’ resilience, facilitate their access to markets and diversify their incomes, all particularly critical in light of restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic´ concluded Mr. Khalid Bomba, the newly appointed FAO Chief Innovation Director. Mr. Bomba also reminded that FAO has been facilitating WSIS Action Line C7 e-agriculture since 2005, using ICT (information and communication technologies) applications for agriculture and that the organization has also been leading several initiatives in that field, such as the International Platform for Digital Food and Agriculture, the Hand-in-Hand Initiative and the 1000 Digital Villages.  

Keeping the momentum to develop a rural e-commerce that is inclusive, and generates economic, social and environmental benefits for all, this session constituted a crucial step on the pathway towards ending poverty and hunger and ensuring, following FAO´s overarching mandate, that ´no one is left behind´. 

· Learn more about WSIS Forum 2021 here

· Find the full agenda of the event here

· Watch the recording of the event here

· For more information, contact digital-innovation@fao.org   

WSIS Forums represent the world's largest annual gatherings of the ‘ICT for development’ community. Co-organized by ITU, UNESCO, UNDP and UNCTAD since 2005, they are an efficient mechanism for coordination of multi- stakeholder implementation activities, including public/private partnerships, information exchange, creation of knowledge and sharing of best practices, providing information and analyses of the implementation of WSIS Action Lines in the achievement of SDGs in collaboration with the UN Agencies involved.   

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