Photograph by Trevor Snapp, Bloomberg via Getty Images
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A farmer in Uganda uses a mobile phone to check international coffee prices.

Photograph by Trevor Snapp, Bloomberg via Getty Images

How Cell Phones Can Help End World Hunger

Digital infrastructure may be the most powerful tool in battling the worldwide epidemic of malnutrition.

On a recent trip to Tanzania, I met a group of women who farmed vegetables for a living near the village of Mlandizi on the country’s east coast. As they were telling me about their operation, the unexpected ring of a cell phone interrupted us.

In a village where most people live below the poverty line, all 11 women reached into their colorful kangas to check their phones. The caller was giving an update on seed prices—vital information in a country where seeds are often hard to come by.

Forget satellites, drones or other high-tech innovations. For small-scale farmers across the globe, a simple cell phone has become one of the most powerful tools for boosting one’s harvest and, along with it, his or her family’s and community’s food supply.

Farmers like the women I met are using cellular technology to share crucial information about weather, rainfall, and market demand, along with seed prices, empowering millions of them to grow more food at a time when the world needs it most.

By the end of this century, there will be more than 9 billion people on the planet. Feeding that many mouths will require farmers to harvest more food in the next 75 years than has yet been produced in all of human history. (Read about the challenge of feeding 9 billion people.)

Hungry Farmers

Yet the cruel irony is that today hunger disproportionately affects small farmers. In fact, roughly half of the world’s 805 million chronically hungry people are small-scale farmers like the women I met in Tanzania. Without access to the right resources and training, millions of food producers are unable to move past subsistence farming or even put food on the table for themselves and their families. Often, their crops will fail as a result of drought, disease, pest or post-harvest contamination.

SMS technology, or “Short Message Service”—the wireless capability  that enables two-way text messaging on cell phones—offers one of the best ways for farmers to tackle these problems. That's especially true in low-income countries where cellphones are more common than traditional infrastructure like paved roads and reliable electricity. (Read about the new face of hunger in the world's richest nation.)

The mobile platform iCow, for example, sends text messages to farmers with advice on diagnosing pest problems, preventing infection among livestock and selecting certain types of grass to feed one’s cows.

This kind of information can be  crucial during the rainy season, the period from March to May when farmers in Tanzania begin to plant next year’s crop.

Other information that's shared via cell phones, including weather forecasts, fertilizer prices and more resilient seeds, could mean the difference between a successful harvest and a lean one, after which the number of daily meals dwindles to one.

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A Ugandan coffee farmer contacts a local agricultural information center to find out more about a pesticide before using it.

No Silver Bullet

Technology alone won’t deliver the world from hunger. After all, SMS technology is useless for the millions of farmers who are illiterate. Gender inequality and cultural tradition, meanwhile, keep technology like cell phones out of the reach of millions of female farmers across the globe, even though women make up an estimated 43% of the agricultural workforce in developing nations

Plus, cell phone coverage can't compensate for inadequate roads, which stop farmers from delivering their surplus crops to the market. (Check out The Plate, National Geographic's food blog.)

And scientific advances on nutrition and agriculture remain the most effective tools to grow more food. Yet SMS technology provides a unique solution for delivering word of these breakthroughs to subsistence farmers, especially since the communities that would benefit most are often the most remote.

Organizations like World Food Program USA, the U.N. World Food Programme and U.S. Agency for International Development need support from governments as well as the private sector to invest in more research and smarter programs to help small farmers succeed.

More than half of the planet’s arable yet unused farmland can be found in Africa, where millions of small farmers lack access to basic infrastructure and information. By empowering small farmers like the women I met in Tanzania with information, and with cell phone technology, we can raise millions of families out of hunger and poverty.

Follow Dan Glickman on Twitter.

Dan Glickman served as the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture from 1995 to 2001. He currently serves on the board of World Food Program USA , a non-profit based in Washington, D.C., that builds support and resources for the mission of the U.N. World Food Programme .
Related Video: A Plan for Feeding 9 Billion