A PhD thesis on reciprocal technologies by Eugenio Tisselli. Plymouth University, 2016.

Full title: “Reciprocal Technologies: Enabling the Reciprocal Exchange of Voice in Small-Scale Farming Communities through the Transformation of Information and Communications Technologies”.


Industrial agricultural systems have compromised local, regional, and even planetary ecosystems, and have largely denied the voices and collaborative practices of small-scale farmers by increasingly pushing them towards different forms of marginalization. This book seeks to explore this critical issue, and its main premise is that reinforcing the reciprocal exchange of voice in small-scale farming communities can become a strategy to increase their recognition and resilience in face of these challenges. By merging grounded research in rural communities in Tanzania and Mexico with a unique transdisciplinary approach that combines technology studies, critical theory, agroecology, and socially engaged art, the author explores how the critical transformation of technologies for voicing out may contribute to the activation of such a strategy. offers practical as well as theoretical insights on how information and communications technologies affect rural farmers and their communities, and argues that these technologies need to be ethically transformed in order to resist the hegemony of self-interested competition, commodification and social exclusion.


What is at stake in small-scale agriculture is not only the capacity to acquire new knowledge, but also the very nature of that knowledge. This has to do with the question of what purposes may learning serve. Can learning reinforce reciprocal practices that can support the production of a commons or, on the other hand, contribute to the establishment and dissemination of a merely utilitarian and competitive view of agriculture?

A significant number of e-agriculture initiatives favor the delivery of market-ready, productivity-oriented information to individual farmers. Thus, willingly or unwillingly, the model of information and knowledge transfer of such initiatives can contribute to the disintegration of reciprocal values, in which agricultural production tends to address mutual benefits, rather than individual profits. A consequence of such disintegration is the potential risk of intensifying the process by which small-scale farmers are pulled towards monetized models of labor and production that are beyond their control, and which can compromise their local forms of social and economic organization in ways that may be unwanted.

As farmers are compelled to enter deregulated global markets, for example through the export of cash crops, they can become increasingly vulnerable to spiralling forms of economic dependency. Technologies introduced by the successive agricultural revolutions, such as chemical fertilizers, pesticides, genetically modified seeds, or mobile phones, have incrementally introduced forms of dependency which were previously unknown. In the case of mobile phones, farmers find themselves facing a new or increased need for electricity, devices, and, more significantly, access to mobile networks. The regular payments required to access such networks can potentially become a serious burden for farmers in the long run. If small-scale farmers become dependent on information delivered through mobile phones, they will likely be constrained to find ways of continuously paying associated costs. Mobile dependency can be understood as a closed loop: farmers are served with information specially tailored to boost their productivity and access to markets so that they may become reliable clients of all sorts of products, including mobile information delivery.

In hybrid social scenarios, where reciprocal economies coexist with monetized ones, raising their income through increased productivity is certainly a legitimate goal for small-scale farmers. But does e-agriculture offer a sustainable model for achieving that goal? A report commissioned by the World Bank suggests that the poorer Kenyans are already overspending on mobile costs and even making monetary sacrifices that include foregoing food and transport (World Bank, 2012b). The report states that “these substitutions were largely undertaken in order to strengthen the longer-term asset accumulation of micro-enterprises” (World Bank, 2012b, p.39), meaning that access to mobile communications, including e-agriculture services and applications, is increasingly seen by small-scale farmers as a way to improve their future income opportunities. However, those future opportunities, which may or may not materialize, already imply compromising basic subsistence in the present. Such a scenario should be sufficient to bring the model of the small-scale farmer as a mobile-driven entrepreneur into question.

Monetized loops and individual spirals of dependency marginalize reciprocal practices and exchanges even further by invalidating alternative economic models, such as sharing or producing a commons. The loop of which e-agriculture initiatives are part of has a strong tendency to individualize economic actors, detaching them from the possibility of more communal forms. Although small-scale farming communities may be considered as hybrid contexts in which different forms of economic exchange coexist, their members tend to be more collaborators than competitors. In a collaborative community, knowledge and information are needed not by individuals but rather by the community as a whole to make collective decisions.

Michael Gurstein, who proposed the notion of community informatics, argued that in such communal contexts, the conventionally and technologically prescribed mode of one-to-one communications offered by mobile phones can potentially disrupt the very basis of communal life (Gurstein, 2012). Providing access to information on an individual level, as most mobile-driven e-agriculture initiatives do, may indeed empower individuals. Yet, as Gurstein claimed, it is not clear how individual empowerment may result in communal benefits, since it is most likely that this process would impede collaboration by introducing or reinforcing individual competition (Gurstein, 2012).”

Find the full thesis here.

Photo by CAFNR

4 Comments Can e-agriculture contribute to erode reciprocal practices?

  1. AvatarBob Haugen

    This is a valuable and timely article, but I found the title difficult to understand. I just clicked in because it was recommended to me. Suggestion for improvement: “Do mobile phones in agriculture erode cooperative principles?”

  2. AvatarEugenio Tisselli

    Hi Bob, thank you for your comment and suggestion. I agree that the term ‘cooperative principles’ can be a good choice for the title, but I speak about ‘reciprocal practices’ because my entire research is based on the notion of reciprocity.

  3. AvatarBob Haugen

    Hi Eugenio, thanks for responding to my comment. I am studying your full thesis and understanding better where you are coming from. If after I study, I have a better suggestion for title improvement that might fit your own goals, I’ll report back here. (Altho I suspect that whenever that happens, it will be too late to do any good, but I wanted you to know that I am continuing to look into your very useful insights.)

  4. AvatarEugenio Tisselli

    Hi Bob,

    Thank you for your interest in my work. Although I have already concluded my thesis, I am still working on the text, hoping to be able to publish as a book it in the future. So, your feedback will be greatly appreciated.

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