Research Reports from our USAID LASER PULSE Project in Kenya

The three main reports from our USAID LASER PULSE research project entilted “Exploring the Use of Blockchain Technology to Promote the Production and Consumption of African Indigenous Vegetables in Western Kenya,” are now available. I have also included below the 4-minute video we developed to help explain the research and its main findings.

Agnew, J., Hall, R. P., Mwangi, J., Sumner, D., & Kristofikova, N. (2022). The Impact of Blockchain Technology on Food Insecurity through African Indigenous Vegetables in Western Kenya: Final Report. USAID LASER PULSE, 73 pages. http://hdl.handle.net/10919/110444

This study is one of the first to explore how blockchain technology (BCT) could be used to improve food security in communities that are reliant on agriculture but are the last to receive services or access to markets, known as the ‘last-mile’. The goal was to determine how BCT could contribute to improving the income of African indigenous vegetable (AIV) value chain actors (e.g., producers, traders, and retailers) and to the affordability, availability, and accessibility of nutritious foods like AIVs for consumers. It finds that BCT can simultaneously strengthen the functionality of an entire agri-food value chain by increasing the efficiency of transactions among value chain actors, improving cooperation along the value chain, and enhancing access to information. A decrease in post-harvest loss, reduction in negotiation and search costs, and traceability of Grade A vegetables were facilitated by the blockchain functionality of the AgUnity V3 SuperApp. Producer income was improved by better meeting market demand, time savings on AIV activities, increasing the supply of Grade A vegetables, and making information on the vegetables more available to consumers. Increased incomes led to improved food security among producers by facilitating their ability to procure more food, especially higher quality proteins and fruits. Participants and consumers reported an increase in the consumption of AIVs over the study period because of increased quality, availability, and awareness of their nutritional importance.

Agnew, J., Mwangi, J., Hall, R. P., Sumner, D., & Kristofikova, N. (2021). Transaction and Information Pain Points in African Indigenous Vegetable Value Chains in Western Kenya: A Gender-Responsive AIV Value Chain and Market Analysis Report. USAID LASER PULSE, 46 pages. http://hdl.handle.net/10919/111357

The use cases for blockchain technology (BCT) have taken off since its initial development for the cryptocurrency Bitcoin. In agricultural value chains, BCT has been developed for agri-food products from source to retail outlets, increasing transparency between value chain actors, and creating secure transaction platforms. However, BCT is not a magic bullet for addressing all value chain inefficiencies and challenges. This study, Exploring the Use of Blockchain Technology to Improve Food Security Through African Indigenous Vegetables in Western Kenya, aims to investigate the types of challenges within the value chain for African indigenous vegetables (AIVs) that BCT is appropriate to address. It also aims to investigate if deploying a BCT-based digital platform in AIV value chains will lead to improved food security for all value chain actors.

This gender-responsive participatory value chain analysis (PVCA) investigates the transactional, informational, and other types of pain points within AIV value chains to identify where BCT is needed. AIVs are known as ‘female’ crops, as women are primarily responsible for their production, marketing, and preparation. This PVCA also investigates gender disparities in the value chain with the view to understanding how a BCT-based digital platform might help to secure the place of women in the value chain as it is upgraded.

According to the findings of the PVCA, the main pain points that need to be addressed in order to improve income-earning opportunities and availability of and demand for AIVs are the lack of coordination throughout the value chain, assurance of vegetable safety for consumers, improved transmission of information through the value chain, standardization of grading and pricing, improving the market power of women, and technical assistance for producers in pest and disease management and production practices to improve yield. BCT cannot address all of these pain points. However, it is well suited for improving vertical coordination between actors by organizing and standardizing transactions and making information on the AIVs accessible at all stages of the value chain. It will also provide women a safe and secure platform for transacting that will protect the revenues earned from their respective activities.

This study also finds that while smartphone ownership is low, value chain actors are willing to pay for a smartphone as well as a monthly subscription fee to use a digital platform if it will address their key pain points.

This study will continue to investigate key knowledge gaps such as how technology use might more effectively engage youth in AIV value chains, how information on the blockchain can be certified, and how to scale up the use of a BCT-based digital platform. However, this PVCA demonstrates there is potential for BCT to offer important solutions to address transactional and informational inefficiencies along AIV value chains.

Kristofikova, N., I. Muskoke, and J. Agnew. (2021). Embedded Research Translation Report: Exploring the Use of Blockchain Technology to Promote the Production and Consumption of African Indigenous Vegetables in Western Kenya. AgUnity, Australia, 39 pages. http://hdl.handle.net/10919/111503

AgUnity worked with Virginia Tech and Egerton University on the LASER PULSE-funded project entitled Exploring the Use of Blockchain Technology to Promote the Production and Consumption of African Indigenous Vegetables (AIVs) in Western Kenya. AIV value chains are characterized by transactional and informational inefficiencies that contribute to inconsistent supply and mismatched demand in Kenya. This research program explores how digital applications built on blockchain technology (BCT) can be deployed in AIV value chains in western Kenya in a way that improves food and nutrition security for all value chain actors. Specifically, there was interest in understanding how the BCT-based smartphone application could assist groups of individuals who typically face constraints in accessing economic or nutritional benefits from value chain upgrading (i.e., smallholder producers, women, youth, low-income consumers).

This project was one of the first times the AgUnity app was not deployed in a centralized supply chain context (i.e., with a union or cooperative supplied by hundreds of farmers). We have found that in decentralized supply chains, there is a particular need to ensure that the system supports the users’ values and needs for conducting their respective value chain activities. When this is achieved, trust that is garnered through the use of the technology shall translate directly into more cooperative and coordinated value chains. Both the value chain app adaptation and configuration and the technology service design were built around this premise, using embedded research translation (ERT) processes to ensure that it was achieved in the target population and value chain.

This report outlines the steps taken by AgUnity to translate Virginia Tech and Egerton University’s research into the adaptation and deployment of our proprietary BCT-based smartphone application. It is directed toward readers interested in understanding the product and service design of the AgUnity application, the use of BCT in digital platforms designed for last-mile users, and those interested in successful examples of ERT. It walks the reader through the value chain mapping and community immersion processes, the steps needed to adapt the technology to fit the local value chain context, and the development and selection of app functionalities for the target users and value chain. The report may be of interest to researchers, farming associations, and cooperatives or agricultural non-governmental organizations interested in the AgUnity solution as well as stakeholders involved in strengthening agricultural market systems, AgTech, or FinTech.

Congratulations Luis Camacho!

Congratulations to Luis Camacho who successfully defended his PhD in Planning, Governance, and Globalization on Monday. Luis’s PhD dissertation was entitled “Technology, Participatory Management Practices (PMP), and Dignity at Work: Negotiating the Use of Technology in a Plastics Packaging Firm.” The abstract to his dissertation is provided below.

While every student’s PhD pathway is different, Luis’s accomplishment is particularly notable given the unexpected challenges he faced along the way. The most significant of these was the tragic loss of Prof. John Browder, the co-chair of his PhD committee. When I asked Luis to reflect on his journey, he provided the following remarks about Prof. Browder and gave me permission to share them:

“… my heart falls apart when remembering the inexhaustible kindness, love, joy, and passion Dr. John Browder had for his students. He supported me as I worked to overcome a rough first year of my graduate program and helped me progress to my second year and then on to the PhD. I still remember how excited he was to teach his planning theory class in Alexandria for the first time (a course he had taught for 15 years in Blacksburg). His energy and enthusiasm was contagious. When I transitioned to Blacksburg from Alexandria, he and his wife hosted me at their house and shared Blacksburg’s history with me. As a teacher and advisor, he always challenged us to discover our own pathways and calmed any anxieties we had about our research.”

Prof. Joyce Rothschild served as Luis’s second PhD committee chair until her retirement from Virginia Tech, at which point I became the chair. I am extremely grateful that Prof. Rothschild remained an active external committee member after her retirement. Dr. Daniel BreslauDr. John Provo, and Dr. David Bieri also served as key members of Luis’s PhD committee.

I would describe Luis as one of our most resilient students. Not only was he able to navigate multiple changes to his committee, he faced similar changes during his fieldwork as his position in the firm he was studying evolved, requiring time consuming changes to his research protocol. During his time at Virginia Tech, Luis served as a TA for multiple courses in SPIA and the Real Estate program, taught courses for the VT Honors Program, and worked as a graduate researcher for Dr. David Bieri and for the VT Office of Economic Development.

Luis now plans to return to Colombia, where he hopes to continue his research into the relationship between technology and dignity at work.

Abstract

Since the introduction of Toyota’s Production System, the deployment of lean production systems (or lean manufacturing) and more advanced technological developments, Participatory Management Practices (PMP) have been viewed as lying at the heart of successful manufacturing workplaces. Studies on technology and PMP have concluded that the state of technology in a company unequivocally shapes PMP and can open spaces to enhance the wellbeing of workers regardless of the PMP dynamics. However, these claims are contested by studies that question the positive effects from PMP, arguing that workplaces are organized in such a way that workers are viewed as mere resources to be deployed in the production process, without paying attention to their human morale and agency.

This research presents a case study of a food plastics packaging firm that contextualizes, describes, and analyzes: 1) PMP from a Socio-technical Systems Theory (SST) perspective to further our understanding of the role of participative dynamics in the wellbeing of workers; and 2) the dynamics of control-resistance in the workplace as a measure of dignity at work in the context of power relations. This research provides a rich exploration of a workplace that is facing and managing the challenge of automation and technological development.

Using an extended case study research method, data are collected by observing workers’ daily interactions with a combination of technologies. These observations reveal the importance of team dynamics in the production process. The observed PMP dynamics show conflictive, competitive, and cooperative behaviors that are negotiated through continuous human-machine, machine-machine, and human-human interactions in the production process. However, management is found to be indifferent to the impact that a combination of technologies and lean production approaches have on participation dynamics. This indifference inhibits managers from embracing and appreciating the value of PMP. All the identified expressions of what technology and PMP mean to workers, and their dynamics, show an ongoing negotiating process. This process comes from all types of participation in which a worker struggles for dignity. The organizational structure of the firm expects workers to display specific types of participation in team efforts, but workers are also provided with opportunities to negotiate their interests or struggle for dignity by changing their type of participation in team activities.

The work processes and findings described in this dissertation generally support the theory of Hodson (2001). Further, this research develops the concept of “combination of technologies,” which can be used to help observe workers’ understanding of technology and participative dynamics. The research also identifies various types of participation based on the interactions of workers in the technology process and how workers manage or safeguard their dignity based on their engagement with different types of participation in team-based situations or events. Finally, this research identified how participative engagement by workers can be used as a power mechanism to retain their dignity.

Graduate Seminar in Technology, Globalization, and Sustainable Development

Are you a graduate student at Virginia Tech looking for a framework that integrates Technology, Globalization, and Sustainable Development?

If so … sign up for UAP 5784 (CRN 89423)
Meets Mondays, 9:00 – 11:45am
Room 111, Architecture Annex

This graduate seminar will explore the many dimensions of sustainability and how industry and national, multinational, and international political and legal mechanisms can be used to further sustainable development.

UAP 5784 – Technology, Globalization, and Sustainable Development

Technology, Globalization, and Sustainable Development
UAP 5784 / CRN 90063
Meets: Mondays 9:00 to 11:45am
Location: Architecture Annex 111
Dr. Ralph Hall (rphall@vt.edu)

Overview

This graduate seminar will provide students with a transdisciplinary perspective on sustainable development. It is intended for students interested in planning, policy, economics, business, innovation, environmental studies, and law. The seminar will explore the many dimensions of sustainability and how national, multinational, and international political and legal mechanisms can be used to further sustainable development.

During the seminar we will consider the inter-relationship of global economic changes, inequality, employment, worker health and safety, and environment in the context of theories of development, trade, technical and organizational innovation, and employment. Mechanisms for resolving the apparent conflicts between these elements will be explored.

This seminar is intended to stimulate discussion and critical thinking on the key writings in sustainable development. Students will be evaluated on the basis of their mastery of the materials through (1) written assignments and (2) class participation. The seminar has one required text that will be supplemented by topical readings tailored to student interests.

UAP 5784 – Technology, Globalization, and Sustainable Development

This fall semester I will be offering a graduate seminar focused on Technology, Globalization, and Sustainable Development (UAP 5784; 3 Credits)

Book Review: “This astonishing book is a terrific summary of informa¬tion for those seeking feasible alternatives to the pursuit of infinite growth.” Dennis Meadows, co-author of The Limits to Growth
Book Review: “This astonishing book is a terrific summary of informa¬tion for those seeking feasible alternatives to the pursuit of infinite growth.” Dennis Meadows, co-author of The Limits to Growth

The seminar will meet on Fridays from 12:30pm to 3:15pm, in the Architecture Annex, room 111.

The seminar is designed to provide students with a transdisciplinary perspective on sustainable development. It is intended for students interested in planning, policy, economics, business, innovation, environmental studies, and law. The seminar will explore the many dimensions of sustainability and how national, multinational, and international political and legal mechanisms can be used to further sustainable development.

During the seminar we will consider the inter-relationship of global economic changes, inequality, employment, worker health and safety, and environment in the context of theories of development, trade, technical and organizational innovation, and employment. Mechanisms for resolving the apparent conflicts between these elements will be explored.

This new book will be available in August/September, 2014.
This new book will be available 2014/2015.

The seminar is intended to stimulate discussion and critical thinking on the key writings in sustainable development. Students will be evaluated on the basis of their mastery of the materials through (1) written assignments and (2) class participation and attendance. The seminar has two required texts (see images) that will be supplemented by topical readings tailored to student interests.

During the semester, I will use Google Glass and other video capture devices/software to provide students with enhanced feedback on their assignments and performance in the seminar.

“Mind-full” Learning

In our New Media Seminar today, I was rather quiet, not because I had nothing to say, but rather because my mind was constantly spinning around the conceptual framework articulated in Douglas Engelbart’s 1962 article entitled “Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework.”

The essence of Engelbart’s article could be described as constructing a conceptual framework for conceptual frameworks. One of Engelbart’s overarching objectives, articulated so well by Gardner Campbell, was to improve (i.e., augment) the process of thinking and to improve the process of improving the process. You may need to read that last sentence twice!

I found Engelbart’s article intriguing. While reading the article and during our seminar conversation, I found myself trying to deconstruct how I read his article, what I highlighted and why, etc., being mindful of the techniques Engelbart introduces. When describing his framework, Engelbart comments “we have learned quite a few simple tricks for leaving appended road signs, supplementary information, questions, and auxiliary links on our working structures – in such a manner that they never get in our way as we work – so that the visitor to our structure can gain his comprehension and isolate what he wants in marvelously short order.” To me, this is the essence of Engelbart’s process for augmenting knowledge – to find the most elegant way to structure and connect ideas so the “scaffolding” by which the mind had created the knowledge is revealed, furthering learning and advancing knowledge.

One example I have, that connects to my previous post, can be found in the quote below from Engelbart’s article where he talks about his research program:

  • “In particular, the electronic-based experimental program could simulate the types of processes available from electromechanical artifacts, if it seemed possible (from the vantage of experience with the wide range of augmentation processes) that relatively powerful augmentation systems could be based upon their capabilities – but the relative payoffs for providing even-more-sophisticated artifact capabilities could be assessed too so that considerations of how much to invest in capital equipment versus how much increase in human effectiveness to expect could be based upon some experimental data.”

Figure 5 from Engelbart’s article
Figure 5 from Engelbart’s article

If I had the capabilities of Engelbart’s human intellect augmentation system at my fingertips, I would link the latter part of the above quote to my previous post (as I have done), and append substructures on cybernetics, binary economics, innovation and jobs, co-operatives, etc., establishing the scaffolding for a new research agenda targeted at understanding how capital and labor “productiveness” (and the combination of the two) are linked with wealth and what this holds for a sustainable future. What would be interesting is whether revealing the structure of my thought process would enable others to comprehend the ideas faster (and more deeply) than they would have done had they read the same ideas in a proposal or journal article. This question highlights a challenge faced by Engelbart when trying to articulate his ideas. There is a certain irony to writing a “linear” article describing a conceptual framework that is designed to enable you to tear the very same article apart and reconstruct it in a fundamentally different way. I have no doubt that Engelbart’s conceptual framework would enable one to experience complexity usefully, which perhaps best embodies what he was trying to achieve.

Finally, an interesting question raised during our discussion was whether a human intellect augmentation system (as envisioned by Engelbart) would lead to atrophy, automation, or augmentation of the mind. Only time will answer this question.

Textbook Makes Ralph Nader’s Holiday Reading List

In December 2011, Ralph Nader prepared a holiday reading list for the “caring, agitated mind.” The textbook written by Nicholas Ashford and I was listed among the 12 books discussed. Here is what Ralph Nader said about our work:

  • “5. Technology, Globalization, and Sustainable Development – Transforming the Industrial State by Nicholas A. Ashford and Ralph P. Hall (Yale University Press, New Haven, 2011). This is a big picture, big book integrating the design of multipurpose solutions to the sustainability challenge so that economics, employment, technology, environment, industrial development, national and international law, trade, finance, and public and worker health and safety are taken into account. If the piecemeal frustrates you, try this whole meal.”