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Digital identity for farmers: read our report

Copa worked with the GSMA’s Digital Identity programme (partly DFID funded) to conduct research into digital identity for smallholder farmers in Sri Lanka. GSMA published a report on the findings in March.

Records. If the bank was going to give her a loan, they would need official records, lots of them.

“They dismissed me. Without even asking me what I wanted.” Kalyani, a tea farmer from the Ratnapura area of Sri Lanka, told us last year.

With just under two acres of tea, Kalyani believes that she has an occasionally fluctuating, but relatively stable monthly income. But she expected, quite rightly, that the bank might not see it that way.

It’s difficult for smallholder farmers like her to access loans. Credit histories and collateral might work well for those in fixed salary office jobs, but most smallholder farmers often have neither.

Kalyani, Ratnapura

Credit is not the only thing in short supply. Big shifts in such as changing weather patterns and more globalised crop markets are creating a new context for farmers. Inherited farming information and practices are losing their value. There’s a growing need for more localised and timely farming information and inputs to help farmers respond to changes happening all around them.

Providing smallholder farmers with a ‘digital identity’ may at first sound like a somewhat far-out goal to have: the term brings to mind Facebook accounts, Apple Pay and e-passports. However, for farmers like Kalyani a digital identity – an electronic record of, for example, her transactions with her tea supplier, the geo-location of her farm, her land ownership documents – could give her access to the vital services she needs to thrive as a tea farmer.

If banks, government, input suppliers, mobile networks and other service providers had a better idea of who she was, they could provide her with more and better access to tailored service to improve her farming productivity.

This is the digital identity opportunity in agriculture, and this was the hypothesis we went to explore with GSMA in Sri Lanka: how Kalyan’s tea buyer might work with her bank to verify her identity digitally and give her access to loans, or how her mobile network could use her location and other farm details to send her localised weather updates or crop growing tips.

This is a nascent opportunity, and while there’s was a great deal of excitement around it (the agricultural space is in the midst of it’s own ‘data revolution’) from industry players, little was known about how farmers felt about having a digital identity.

Our research set out to tackle some tough questions: how could we make a digital identity meaningful for farmers? How could an identity provider resolve the tension between the fixed and measurable identity that a formal organisation needs and the fluid and communal nature of identity in farmer’s everyday lives? What understanding and concerns do farmers have about privacy and the risks of identity?

The research needed to understand identity on farmers terms and help farmers imagine future possibilities, benefits and risks that identity could bring. The research took both an ethnographic approach: understanding context, attitudes and behaviours around identity, and co-design approach: working with farmers and other stakeholders to explore efficient and friendly ways of developing a digital identity.

The research findings have been published in this report.