Dossier

Farm data: Serving smallholder farmers in a digital age

Increasing amounts of agricultural data are being produced at faster speeds, using a greater variety of technologies and innovations than ever before. But what is the value of information sharing for smallholders, and what are the risks?

The gathering of farmer- and field-based data is enabling providers to deliver tailored and timely services to smallholders © King Baudouin African Development Prize
The gathering of farmer- and field-based data is enabling providers to deliver tailored and timely services to smallholders © King Baudouin African Development Prize

Monday, 30 July 2018

Aggregating information about farm location and production in farmer profiles helps companies to tailor their support for smallholders, but how can this data be securely managed and transferred to rural farmers for their benefit?

In order to bring about agricultural transformation and the improvement of food systems around the world, governments and their partners have collected data about farmers for decades. More recently, agribusinesses, mobile network operators and financial service providers have done the same in order to understand farmer needs for agricultural inputs, information services, market linkages and finance. As such, data on and for farmers and their products has become a growth area, driving expectations and investments in big data, blockchain technology, precision agriculture and e-extension.

Among other outcomes, data-driven agriculture or ‘Data4Ag’ is expected to increase agricultural production and productivity, help farmers adapt to or mitigate the effects of climate change, and bring about more economic and efficient use of natural resources. But if smallholder farmers are to truly benefit from the data revolution and open datasets, increased access to comprehensible information through targeted and context-specific services will be necessary.

To enable providers to deliver tailored and timely services, innovations and initiatives are underway to gather farmer- and field-based data, such as their name, age, gender, location, commodity grown, production levels and finance information, in order to build smallholder profiles. The way that farmer profiles are compiled, stored, analysed and utilised using advanced digital technologies can drive whether, and how quickly, agricultural development is able to end poverty and hunger among rural populations.

Managing cooperative members

In Africa, farmer organisations and cooperatives are in the best position to build and maintain farmer profiles, with more than 40% of households belonging to a cooperative society. According to Stephane Boyera, CEO of SBC4D – a French consulting company in the ICT4D sector – “The value of these profiles, apart from enabling specialised services for farmers, can also benefit other stakeholders, such as cooperatives and farmer organisations themselves.”

In eight countries across Africa and the Pacific, CTA has worked with the Southern African Confederation of Agricultural Unions, the East Africa Farmers Federation (EAFF), Igara Growers Tea Factory Ltd (IGTF), the National Union of Coffee Agribusiness and Farm Enterprises and Agriterra to capture profile information of smallholder farmers, to better enable local farmer organisations to map their members’ locations for enhanced management of their operations. The information collected is uploaded to the various digital storage platforms of the farmer organisations, who analyse the data after receiving training from CTA in data management. “Through the farmer profiling experience, we were able to map tea leaf collection points and where our farmers come from. So, we are going to use the collected data to group farmers around appropriate leaf collection centres for convenient management of our members,” states Onesimus Matsiko, general manager of the Igara Growers Tea Factory Ltd in Uganda, which carried out farmer profiling with CTA in 2017-2018 (see Farm Mapping Increases Incomes for Tea Farmers). Chris Addison, coordinating the CTA Data4Ag project, points out that, “The digitalisation of agriculture is based on the new opportunities for collecting and sharing data and the farmer-led enterprises/cooperatives are best placed to bring the benefits to the smallholder.” This data can bring access to credit, targeted inputs and advice, improves logistics and access to markets.

The storage and management of data is also proving beneficial for the operations of Women in Business Development Incorporated (WIBDI), an NGO in Samoa. Since 2016, WIBDI has run a training programme for young people at its Organic Farm-to-Table Academy, based in Apia, Samoa’s capital. The programme’s training focuses on organic farming practices, business planning and budgeting but during the early stages, WIBDI had difficulty tracking student progress. With CTA’s support, the NGO developed an online tool to improve their management. “We are now putting information that was previously manually recorded into digital format,” says Faumuina Felolini Maria Tafuna’I, WIBDI’s project manager, “and thanks to the software that we have developed, the Academy is better able to manage information about the students” (see Responding to Market Demand with Farmer Data).

Cloud-based credit services

Greater access to, and management of, farmer information is also enabling farmer organisations to improve access to new markets, buyers and financial services for their members, enabling them to sell more crops and increase their incomes. Such is the case for farmers using eGranary – a mobile app created by Kenyan start-up Intelipro, which uses farm-level data to build automated risk profiles for farmers. Credit providers use these profiles to determine various micro-finance parameters. The technology, which is rolled out to farmers by the EAFF and represents about 20 million farmers in the region, is accessed using USSD technology; similar to SMS, the technology serves as a platform between mobile phones and the computer software of a service provider to send and receive text messages. Farmers log the metrics of their production into the platform, including the size of their farm, the crops grown and how much they pay their workers. Based on this information, and using advanced analytics, the app works out what inputs they need to maximise their yield, such as quality seed and fertiliser, and these are made available to them in the form of credits disbursed by the credit provider.

At just a year old, the platform has 25,000 users and applicants have so far received €130,000 in credit. Speaking on the future direction of the technology, Leonida Mutuku, the 28-year-old creator of eGranary, says, “The current version of the product supports farmers with financial services, but where we are going is to help them improve productivity through the data we aggregate. The next step is to give them real intelligence that will assist them in improving their farms.”

In Fiji’s Ra Province, an International Trade Centre project has profiled and mapped over 26,000 farmers and linked 650 cassava and taro farmers to international retail and distribution networks in Australia and New Zealand. Using a system called the Cloud-based Master Agriculture Database, which incorporates a suite of mapping, profiling and mobile communication applications, buyers, development banks and financing institutions can physically locate smallholder farmers within the supply chain, and review their track record of skills development and certifications before providing them with any contracts or credit.

Satellites for targeted services

In Uganda, CTA’s Market-led User-owned ICT4Ag-enabled Information Service (MUIIS) project is harnessing satellite data to help farmers increase their productivity and earnings. The project has enlisted 200 service agents to profile farmers and encourage them to sign up to an SMS service, which delivers agronomic tips, weather alerts and index-based insurance. Geared to support extension and advisory services to maize, bean, sesame and soybean farmers in particular, the project has ambitious goals to increase the crop yields of some 200,000 farmers by at least 25%, and to increase their incomes by at least 20%.

Prior to the launch of MUIIS in March 2017, over 30,000 farmers had been profiled and their details registered to the project’s app. This has enabled the project to send targeted SMS messages to subscribed farmers that are tailored to their individual needs – as defined by their profiles. For example, the weather alerts are specific to farmers’ geographic location and the agronomic tips relate to the crops they specified when they subscribed.

“In the first season, we were able to get an idea of which farmers were prone to particular pest and disease attacks because we knew their locations,” says Ronald Rwakigumba of Mercy Corps, one of the companies working with the project to digitally profile farmers. “We were able to advise the farmers on which pesticide to use and how to apply it in order to address the fall armyworm,” he continues.

Agriculture insurance start-up, Pula, is also using satellite data to provide insurance to farmers in Africa when the rains fail. The price of the insurance is included in the cost of the seed. Each seed package contains a specific number for the farmer to text; they are then attributed to a specific pixel on the satellite to determine their location. This system allows Pula to use satellite data to track the clouds for the crucial first 3 weeks following planting, instead of relying on multiple farm visits like traditional insurance. If there are no clouds, then there is no rain and Pula will replace farmers’ seed. In 2017, the company facilitated insurance coverage to more than 600,000 farmers in Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia. “Pula offers farmers a safety net that reduces risk and makes higher-yielding inputs and insurance affordable,” says Michael Schlein, president and CEO of Accion Venture Lab, which provides financial support to Pula.

Improving livelihoods with livestock data

In Ethiopia and Tanzania, the African Dairy Genetic Gains (ADGG) programme, led by the International Livestock Research Institute, is collecting farm-level data to help smallholder farmers enhance the productivity and profitability of their dairy cows and herds. Farmers upload their cows’ milking, breeding and feeding records to the ADGG platform, which can be accessed via mobile and web devices. The data for each individual animal is then analysed and fed back to farmers with actionable advice so that farmers can make informed management decisions. For example, a growth curve for each cow is created by the app once its age and weight details have been uploaded. As the farmer continues to update this information, they are notified if the animal falls below its expected weight and treatment advice is provided. Since the programme was launched in mid-2016, it has engaged 78,000 farmers, and so far, more than 2 million advice messages have been sent to farmers in the two countries. 

Tailored livestock information is also being provided to farmers subscribed to USOMI Limited’s Lulu® app in Kenya, Nigeria and Tanzania. Via the app, farmers receive feedback on agriculture-related queries in real-time, as well as instructions regarding crop and livestock management during stages of critical development. The information describes, for example, what to feed lactating cows, and allows novice farmers to receive training ‘on the job’. About 3,000 farmers are currently using the app and USOMI plans to launch Lulu® in Malawi, Rwanda and Uganda later in 2018 (see Digital Platform Simplifies Access to Extension Services).

Responsible data

Although an increase in ICTs, open data and data-driven agriculture presents many opportunities across the sector, imbalances still remain regarding access to such information. The spread of precision agriculture, which provides farmers with information and farm management advice to improve their decision-making and optimise their yields, has been enabled by growing access to sensors in machinery, satellite imagery, and the availability of connected computers and smartphones. However, the Responsible Data in Agriculture report by Global Open Data for Agriculture and Nutrition (GODAN) highlights that, “most precision farming applications are employed in highly capital-intensive farming systems and most of the access to technologies and data remains in the hands of a few, large-scale farmers and service providers.”

To overcome the issue of reaching remote smallholders with relevant and timely agricultural data, another GODAN report, Digital and Data-Driven Agriculturerecommends that appropriate policies to encourage the extension of hardware and software systems – that can deliver such data to rural areas – are developed. The authors further note that the necessary infrastructure and connectivity to run these systems must also be provided to these areas.

Farm information gathered from sensors and hi-tech farm equipment, alongside satellite imagery, census data and geospatial data, can provide a lot of information about a farm and its activities – and not necessarily with the active consent of the farmer. Hence, another challenge for farmers lies in ensuring that their shared information, particularly their profile information, is not misused by third parties for monetary gain or to achieve an unfair competitive advantage. Farmers need to be made aware that the data they provide can be bought and sold.

“Manufacturers of farming equipment, criticised in the recent past because of the lack of formal protection of farmer data gathered through sensors incorporated in their equipment, have reacted, in developing their own code of ethics, such as the EU Code of Conduct on Agricultural Data Sharing by Contractual Agreement. This approach has been endorsed by over 3,000 manufacturers of various types of equipment, sold in Europe, but also across the developing world (including in ACP countries),” explains André Laperrière, executive director of GODAN. “These codes of conduct, while still not standardised/ generalised, point at where markets are going, so we are optimistic that more and more farmer data will be better protected, and as they themselves become more aware of the value of their data, they will also insist on it” (see Data on all Levels is Very Valuable to the Value Chain).

Sophie Reeve

Reaching farmers with modern research

To bridge the information gap between farmers and scientists, Kenya’s premier research institution, the Kenya Agricultural & Livestock Research Organization (KALRO), is on a mission to reach vast numbers of smallholders with relevant research through the use of ICTs. The organisation was established in 1986 to increase productivity and competitiveness in the agricultural sector, which represents a source of livelihood for over 70% of the population. But there has been a disconnect between the expanse of research and data accumulated by the institution, and the impact that this information has had for smallholders in the country.

“Despite KALRO having 600 researchers producing extensive research on some of the most pressing agricultural problems in Kenya, this research still gathers dust in our repositories. We have therefore become very assertive in using technology to disseminate this information,” says Boniface Akuku, ICT director at KALRO. Such efforts include the rolling out of three mobile applications last year – Indigenous Chicken, Range Pasture Seed Production and Dryland Crops – which were downloaded 600 times within a month of their launch. “We didn’t publicise them a lot but were impressed by the interest among farmers. We decided to increase the number of apps this year and have introduced 14 new ones based on the kinds of information the farmers expressed an interest in,” Akuku explains.

The latest applications range from avocado, banana and cassava production, to reporting and mapping of the fall armyworm, and controlling Maize Lethal Necrosis Disease. The apps, which are available on Google Playstore, only require internet connectivity to be downloaded, after which they can be accessed offline. They have been effective in reducing the distance farmers have to travel to acquire agricultural information, while aiding KALRO’s understanding of the data farmers require through the feedback platform provided in each app.

“KALRO has 51 centres with each specialising in an aspect of agriculture, whether that be indigenous chickens or horticulture. One farmer recently told us how he used to travel for 2 days to reach one of our centres to access information on chickens. He no longer needs to do that, thanks to the app which he has downloaded,” Akuku says.

Bob Koigi

Other dossiers

The Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA) is a joint international institution of the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) Group of States and the European Union (EU). CTA operates under the framework of the Cotonou Agreement and is funded by the EU.