Barbara Ntambirweki

Barbara Ntambirweki is a Ugandan lawyer and Researcher working with ETC Group under the African Technology Assessment Platform. She is passionate about promoting technology justice within food systems in Africa, particularly with regard to the emerging developments in modern biotechnology and the digitalization of food and agriculture. Currently coordinating the African Working Group on Digitalization of Food and Agriculture to raise the collective voice of civil society organizations in Africa on the governance of digital agriculture on the continent. Prior to this role, she was a Research Fellow with Advocates Coalition for Development and Environment (ACODE) involved in research and policy advocacy on the regulation of genetic engineering in Uganda. Barbara is also a lecturer at the Uganda Pentecostal University where she teaches Intellectual Property Law.

Fellow Followup April 24, 2024

In another addition of Fellow Follow Up, we speak with Barbara Ntambirweki, a DCSL/CCSRE Fellow in the 2023-24 cohort. A Ugandan lawyer and researcher, Barbara talks about her journey and vision for driving change in African agriculture, specifically addressing critical issues facing farmers in the age of digitization.

Barbara’s project focuses on the governance of digitalization in agriculture within the framework of food sovereignty. She wants to amplify the voices of civil society and challenge the narrative imposed by governments and agribusiness. She emphasizes the importance of preserving traditional knowledge systems while advocating for farmer-centric technologies.

Barbara’s research also highlights the disconnect between high-tech solutions and the realities of smallholder farmers, stressing the need for platforms that empower farmers and protect their rights, instead of exploiting them and extrapolating resources. She also explores the role of agroecology in promoting food security and gender equality, citing examples from initiatives like Macho Sauti in Tanzania.

Despite personal challenges, including the loss of her father, Barbara’s fellowship has seen significant successes, including engaging civil society leaders and generating more awareness about the issues farmers confront. Looking ahead, she hopes to stay connected with the fellowship community to foster stronger collaborations.

As with previous Fellow Follow Up interviews, Barbara offers a compelling glimpse into what advocacy in the digital age can look like.

Tara: How did you learn about the fellowship?

Barbara: Jim Thomas, my previous mentor and boss, shared with me the call for applications and encouraged me to apply. When I asked Jim for advice about what I should write, he was candid and just said ‘write about the work you’re doing.’ I’m incredibly appreciative of Jim’s support and encouragement throughout the years. He has served as both a mentor and an inspiration to me in many ways. I was thrilled to be asked for an interview and put a lot of effort into making an impression with Toussaint, Nina, and Lucy. I will never forget the day I received the email of the fellowship offer while I was in Montreal attending the Convention on Biological Diversity in December 2022. I was so excited that I was chosen among so many for this opportunity. I’m grateful to the Stanford team for giving this African girl from Ankole, Uganda, the opportunity to pursue her dreams and carry out a project that is so important to the lives of so many farmers throughout Africa.

Tara: Can you talk about your current project and where you envision the project will end up once your fellowship is over?

Barbara: This project investigates how civil society leaders and movements can develop a critical collective voice on the governance of digitalization of agriculture within the context of food sovereignty.  The impact of digitalization on the food system is a growing issue of concern across Africa.  Digitalization of agriculture has been portrayed by governments and agribusiness as a driving force accelerating agricultural transformation. In Africa, our food systems have been no exception to this digital shift and hype; growing, harvesting, processing, packaging, transporting, consuming, and distributing food are all becoming subject to digital technologies. In the face of these changes, there is an urgent need to convene strategic conversations towards interrogation and identifying principles on how governance of digitalization of agriculture–again, within the context of food sovereignty–should occur.

The rapid emergence of mobile apps in Africa being offered to farmers by pesticide firms claims that these apps will assist them in making decisions on what to plant, how much to spray, and what to harvest, for example. But this hi-tech approach is very disconnected from the realities of smallholder farmers who are the backbone of many African economies. The promise of these technologies lies in their ability to gather data on nearly every aspect of the food system and deliver predictive analytics to optimize the decisions of farmers, governments, and the private sector.

My project will continue to raise awareness across various social justice movements and with civil society leaders in Africa about the implications of digitization to our farming systems. We are in the early stages of developing a platform where we can continuously share, update, and inform farmers about their rights and about the implications of sharing their data with platforms. Without retaining access or ownership rights, farmers risk becoming ‘locked in’ to specific technology providers, thereby increasing dependence on technologies. Most importantly, my project advocates for the preservation and upscaling of our traditional knowledge systems that have worked since time immemorial. We also advocate for farmers to ensure that they have control over the technologies being deployed onto them. In the end, the technologies must be farmer-centric, and developed for farmers to meet their needs.

My research also looks at the appropriation of digital technologies for agroecology/peasant agriculture. I interacted with various farmer movements involved in Macho Sauti based in Tanzania. The project Macho Sauti (Eyes and voice in Kiswahili) is an innovative collaboration between scientific research institutions and civil society in the development context. Macho Sauti fosters rich communication between small-scale farmers engaged in agroecological practices and scientific researchers. With the help of agroecology, the food security of families is improved. Women play an important role too; they are the people to liaise with and have control over the money. The fact that they have their own income has strengthened their position. In the short term, this gives women a stronger position in their own families. In the long term, it helps to break down archaic social structures.

Tara: What successes and challenges have you encountered so far as a fellow and what lessons have you learned, if any, during the fellowship?

Barbara: This project has largely been successful. We’ve held several narrative sessions with civil society leaders and movement builders to explore the assumptions that underpin big technology approaches to digital agriculture that we are opposing. We’re finding new ways to counter these approaches and introducing our own African technology systems and practices that have worked for generations.

For example, we’ve shared materials/infographics with civil society leaders across Africa about digitalization. We’ve created a “digitalization corner” around the community to raise awareness. We also hope to promote an African platform that will advocate for the protection and preservation of indigenous knowledge—targeting community leaders and researchers to co-create knowledge together.

The biggest challenge of my fellowship, however, was purely personal. The passing of my father during the time I was supposed to meet with other fellows in Stanford this year. It has been tough navigating my work, dealing with grief, and monumental loss of a huge part of my life. I thank the Stanford community for their understanding during this transition.

Tara: Going forward, in what ways can the fellowship community continue to support your work, and is there anything else you’d like to share?

Barbara: I would like the fellowship community to support our various initiatives and platforms that we are establishing to promote African culture and biodiversity against the deployment of technologies that are not suited for African farmers. I’m open to any future collaborations to continue this work across Africa!