Many governments and donor agencies, as well as the private sector work to solve the myriad of challenges smallholder farmers in Africa face every day, including, but not limited to, access to markets and agronomic support. More progress could be made, however, if the farmers themselves were invited to play a role in tackling their own problems – and mobile technology could be a way to make this happen.
While industries such as the financial market, transport and fast-moving consumer goods are capturing relevant data from huge data sources and turning it into real-time and actionable insights, the agriculture sector is stuck in the physical realm with low volumes of data being generated. Yet, in an era where the phone penetration rate around the world is at an all-time high, farmers no longer have to be disconnected from each other, or from the rest of the world. The solution to their problems could literally be in their hands.
The headache for ag-tech companies in emerging markets is the lack of primary farmer level data, such as exact geolocation, size of farm under production, production dates etc., which is essential to creating robust systems to get farmers in emerging markets closer to precision agriculture. Of course, concerns about data privacy and security do not make it easy for farmers to reach out for their gadgets and freely share information. However, the reward they get from confidentially sharing their data with ag-tech companies that are committed to transform the industry for the greater good outweighs these concerns.
Better planning and collective action
Farmers in most emerging markets rely on rain-fed agriculture, which forces everyone in the same region to plant around the same time and, in most cases, farmers from the same region plant the same thing. This therefore drives down prices during the harvest season due to oversupply of the same commodity in the same region. If farmers were to share what they are planting, how much they are planting and the specific date they are planting, the oversupply could be avoided as farmers could get production volume predictions for certain crops in their region.
Imagine a farmer texting I want to plant half a hectare of potatoes in Arusha and within seconds receiving advice back: “1,000 farmers within a 30 km radius have planted potatoes this season. We predict the prices will be very low. However, only 100 farmers are planting tomatoes and we predict the prices to be high. Would you like to plant tomatoes instead or delay your planting date by a week?” This kind of system will only work if a critical mass of farmers are sharing their information and if they do not misuse it to drive out the competition. This approach could also be beneficial to farmers during the harvesting period, enabling them to collectively sell produce by informing them who is selling what, when and where.
Efficient farm management
Farming is science and business combined and no matter how experienced a farmer might be, they don’t always have all the answers. Technology can therefore enable farmers to tap into detailed data about how their farms operate, which particular area needs more fertilisation, which fields to irrigate and when, and which pests and diseases to look out for based on weather patterns. Access to such information allows farmers to lower their cost of production and gives them maximum yields while minimising their risks.
A few years back, farmers would look at the sky and know what the weather would look like. Now, the weather patterns are so erratic that farmers are unable to properly plan. Most smallholder farmers’ exact location is unknown making it harder for companies with solutions to help address this particular issue. Recently, Wefarm and the Danish Refugee Council worked together to disseminate weather data to farmers in Turkana, a county in north-western Kenya, which has recently been plagued by drought and famine. The weather data these farmers received was generic county level information that had less impact on individual farms. If smallholder farmers share their exact geolocation, however, it will enable companies like Wefarm to create more customised services for individual farmers to better deal with climate shocks.
This list is by no means exhaustive and opportunities to improve the agriculture sector through data shared by farmers themselves is endless and key to transforming the sector. The caveat is that ag-tech companies should be prepared to not only come up with smart ways of encouraging farmers to share data, but also work hand in hand with them to come up with suitable data agreements between the farmers and the service providers.