Smart technologies and cutting-edge data gathering are slashing the costs of precision farming, boosting crop yields, and helping every farmer from smallholders to commercial giants.
Globally, there is an urgent need to find better methods for food production yet, at the same time, there are approximately 500 million 0.4 ha farms around the world. “The challenge that the world is facing, and this is not unique to Africa, is that there's not enough food going into the future,” explains Marc Gower, dynamics lead at Microsoft South Africa.
So how can we double yields to feed a population whose growth is forecast to hit almost 10 billion by 2050?
Slashing the cost of precision farming
Like many industries, technology has become an essential way of doing agribusiness. According to global market research company, BIS Research, the smart farming market is expected to reach almost €21 billion by 2022. Precision agriculture, also known as precision ag or precision farming, is about making farming production more efficient through the use of technology. From smart sensors to solar power, drones, artificial intelligence and even autonomous vehicles, using precision farming means better informed decisions.
Machine learning has a key role in reducing the costs of precision agriculture. By applying artificial intelligence to algorithms, Microsoft is able to predict how soil reacts under different conditions. A few years ago, gaining this information on one piece of land would have required 30 different sensors but, by using smart algorithms, Microsoft can now use one sensor to provide the same level of insight across much larger areas. In other words, farmers are able to take large fields and manage them as if they are a group of small fields through real-time by observation, measurement and machine learning, which increases crop and farm efficiency, ultimately slashing costs for smallholder farmers. “This is starting to drive down the cost of precision farming massively,” explains Gower. “As we’re starting to collect more and more sensor data, and as we apply artificial intelligence to it, we can eventually remove the sensor altogether and only use a few data points to accurately predict key farming variables.”
Of drones and data
Drones are also changing the face of precision farming and are becoming vital tools for capturing agri-data. Cape Town-based company Aerobotics uses drone technology software, which has been specifically designed for tree and vine farms, to alert farmers to early signs of pests and disease so that they can minimise potential damage. Using drone technology, the company has gathered information on more than 25 million trees throughout Africa. “Given the insights and data we can produce on each individual tree, down to canopy level, and given the high cost and loss of having to replace a tree due to damage from a pest or disease, we believe that our technology makes the most sense on tree and vine farms,” explains Benji Meltzer, Aerobotics’ co-founder.
Aerobotics is now working on creating models that bring drones and precision agriculture to smallholder farming through larger organisations that can aggregate resources to make this technology affordable and scalable. For example, co-ops, lenders and banks are starting to use Aerobotics and the data and insights provided to make smarter decisions when it comes to financing farmers and organisations, and insuring crops. “Agriculture is naturally a data-driven industry, and farmers are understanding that the better data they can have on their crops, the better their yield will be at the end of the season,” adds Meltzer.
Africa’s digital landscape
A better broadband?
For smallholder farms to evolve, gathering crop (amongst other) data is essential but precision farming requires connectivity. Even in the most developed countries, access to broadband and satellite technology is limited, expensive and not readily available to everyone. According to the World Bank, there’s a definite ‘digital divide’, with only 35% of the world’s population able to access the internet.
To make farming more efficient and farmers’ lives easier, whilst also boosting crop yield, Microsoft introduced FarmBeats as part of the company’s Digital Agriculture Platform in January 2019. FarmBeats is an initiative that examines the way the global technology giant can assist precision farming at both community and individual scale. With FarmBeats, Microsoft is using TV White Space (TVWS) to connect farmers and their equipment to the Microsoft cloud, which stores and analyses farmers’ data, crunching the numbers to provide all-important, yield-enhancing insights. TVWS is the gaps left by TV networks between channels to buffer. This space is similar to that used by 4G, which means it can also be used to deliver widespread broadband internet.
Broadband can travel through two walls – it’s limited – but TVWS can travel up to 10 km through buildings, vegetation and other obstacles. What’s more is that phones, tablets and computers can all access the internet wirelessly using TVWS through fixed or portable power stations. Simply put, TVWS can be used to deliver affordable broadband internet services to anywhere that receives TV broadcasts. TVWS is an unlicensed, affordable form of internet connectivity which can be deployed almost anywhere without massive infrastructure investments.
African nations, in particular, have been heavily criticised by advocates of TVWS frequencies for under-utilising TVWS. Why? The potential of TVWS to deliver high-speed, affordable internet services to even the most rural areas means we will be one step closer to closing the digital divide, a divide which often prevents smallholder farmers from becoming profitable. “Throughout Africa, there are significant constraints on using TVWS because of legislative hurdles,” explains Gower. “It’s a work in progress right now but [Microsoft] is confident we’ll pass those hurdles soon.”
Each country has its own set of laws and regulations, as well as a controlling body that needs to make it legal for farmers to use unutilised bandwidth; however, the situation is not so simple. Agritech drone companies, for example, face a similar challenge when it comes to operating and flying drones. “This is why we do not fly the drones ourselves, but instead contract a network of drone pilots around the world to fly the drones and capture the data for us,” states Meltzer.
Farming in the cloud
To access global farming data and successfully apply smart algorithms, farmers need an easy-to-access knowledge platform, and this is where cloud computing comes into play. Cloud infrastructure eliminates the need for expensive computing hardware – and the complexities and costs that come with it – which means even the smallest farm operations can access cutting-edge, data-driven farming platforms.
“Cloud is a massive enabler for small farms. Where in the past, access to massive computing power was only the domain of giants like IBM and Oracle, cloud has levelled the playing field,” explains Kevin Derman, CEO at Kaskade.cloud, an African company that helps businesses move to the cloud. According to Derman, it is not only about the computing power or infrastructure. “By combining farming data from one plot with other smallholdings in the area, suddenly the data becomes significant,” he says. “The results can then impact decisions that all farmers make in the area. It may influence the crops that they plant in the next season, their fertiliser regime, or even the selling price of their produce.”
Farming technology company John Deere is investing billions of dollars into precision farming worldwide. When a farmer is harvesting using one of their machines, for example, sensors measure yield at the same time and transmit this information to the cloud. As a result, the global data stored in John Deere’s cloud computing platform comes from many different types of farms.
Creating a bigger pool of master data means that farms of every size can draw from John Deere’s data to enhance their own farming methodologies. It’s a mutually reciprocal way of learning and ultimately developing practical, farm-specific solutions – such as yield prediction – to boost the bottom line.
Putting African produce back on the map
In Ghana, AcquaMeyer Drone Tech design and manufacture drones that address specific problems. “Currently we have spraying drones that are used to apply agrochemicals and a bird-scaring drone that repels birds that feed on crops. We also have drones with multispectral sensors for crop and soil analysis,” says Eric Acquah, AcquaMeyer’s founder and CEO.
Acquah believes that technology like drones will attract African youth back to agriculture, and put African food back on the map. The CTA-supported company currently has 480 farmers using their drone technology. “Many years ago, African foodstuff filled discount shops in Europe, but it was eventually banned because it did not meet the food safety standards of the European market,” adds Acquah. By understanding crop data better, AcquaMeyer has reduced the pesticides that farmers apply, achieving better yields and improving the overall quality of the crops. “We are helping to make this foodstuff exportable, giving farmers a better price for their produce,” Acquah says.
Addressing African-specific agritech issues using precision technology will clearly help smallholder farmers to thrive. Working along this vein, in Kisumu, Western Kenya, Futurepump are on a mission to displace the use of hydrocarbon-powered water pumps and alleviate the labour-intensive irrigation efforts of smallholder farmers.
In Kenya, about 70% of irrigation is achieved through surface irrigation, 22% is through sprinklers and only 8% of the irrigated land is through drip irrigation, even though drip irrigation reduces water use by 70%-90% compared to surface methods. Futurepump’s efficient and durable solar irrigation pumps are specifically designed to give smallholder farmers a sustainable option for irrigation, especially where dry season irrigation offers big opportunities to increase incomes but traditional methods are inefficient, expensive and unsustainable.
“Solar energy is abundant in the tropics, especially in the dry season when crops need watering the most, from this point of view it just makes sense,” explains Helen Davies, Futurepump’s marketing and communications director. “The price of solar PV [photovoltaic] has been dropping dramatically over the past decade and solar panels as a source of energy are now cheap enough to be viable for smallholder, low income customers.”
The Futurepump is a portable and robust irrigation pump designed with smallholders in mind – it is easy to carry to the field and set up, and works with both sprinklers and drip irrigation. Once it is set up it can work unsupervised, allowing farmer to complete other tasks on the farm. “These farmers are now able to produce more high value crops from their land,” says Davies. “So far we have sold over 6,000 solar pumps to smallholders, each supporting a family of, on average, six people.”
Another company working to provide irrigation solutions is Illuminum Greenhouses in Kenya, who use automated irrigation technology linked to farmers’ phones, to enable smallholders to monitor their crop production remotely. According to Taita Ngetich, Illuminum Greenhouses’ co-founder and CEO, the average age of the Kenyan farmer is 60 years old, something which has been greatly influenced by the narrative around agriculture. Like many others, Ngetich believes that agribusiness has the potential to reduce poverty and drive economic growth, more than any other sector, but achieving Africa’s agricultural growth potential will require innovation and a significant increase in historically low-levels of productivity. “We must change this narrative by using the mechanisms and tools that our young people know and understand. We must incorporate technology across the agriculture value chain and start telling young people to see it as a business opportunity and not a culture,” he says.
Farming is a tangible business with tangible results
Using outdated farming practises in a new and modern age is no longer an option. Today’s smart-tech farm is one that utilises technology to get better data and insights in the field, which can be used to make better decisions. It is a farm that uses bespoke technology solutions that successfully address its own challenges. And it is these data-backed decisions that make farming methods more effective, improve the quality of each harvest, and ultimately boost crop yields, turning smallholder farms into commercially successful agribusinesses.