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Leaving no one behind in the era of big data-enabled smart farming



Smart farming consists of using digital innovations to improve agricultural production. Through enhanced monitoring and predictability analysis, based on new technologies such as satellite, soil scanning sensors, Internet of Things, robots, and drones, farmers can tailor their seed selection and planting, apply more precise input dosages, enhance disease detection and treatment, increase precision harvesting with reduced post-harvest losses, and check individual animals.

Mobile phones and social media democratisation have made big data (large sets of structured or unstructured data – text, numbers, pictures, video, etc.) ubiquitous. The opportunity to process minute field-level data dramatically increases the financial, social and ecological benefits of smart farming. These improved prospects are leading to a boom in private and public sector investment in precision farming in a bid to revolutionise agricultural value chains well beyond farming.

Whilst the benefits of big data for smart farming are well documented and widely embraced, these developments also exacerbate inequalities and leave smallholder farmers behind, and this would be unethical. Some key issues should be tackled to improve ethics in smart farming, leveraging on big data possibilities.

If big data for smart farming is to benefit all, it is important that rural last mile infrastructure, and connectivity challenges are addressed. The most recent GSMA mobile connectivity index shows that 30% of the sub-Saharan population is not connected to mobile internet infrastructure (mainly in rural areas), and connectivity costs remain high for 75% of countries.

Critically, farmers differ in their level of awareness and skills, and rural and less privileged farmers are usually less knowledgeable about these new technologies. They are therefore at risk of being excluded from the variety of advantages and opportunities that come with the adoption and usage of next generation smart farming based on big data.

Other critical concerns in making big data use in smart farming ethical are related to data protection and cybersecurity. This threat is exponential in a borderless context where cloud storage, coupled with data portability, exposes smallholders’ personal information to cybercriminals and increases their vulnerability to extortion from hackers. Sharing farmers’ data between third parties without the consent of the individual could aggravate the power imbalance between smallholder farmers and other stakeholders (traders, outgrowers), and reduce farmers’ bargaining power.

A strategy for smallholders

Ensuring equal opportunities for all in leveraging big data for smart farming and creating an ecosystem that works for smallholder farmers requires a comprehensive approach. The United Nations Capital Development Fund (UNCDF) has been a key contributor to the acceleration of digital finance, especially in Least Developed Countries, and has an impressive track record in making digital finance work for the poor through a market development approach. To that end, UNCDF has developed a new strategy to make digital work for all, including for smallholder farmers.

The question of ethical smart farming in view of big data application can be solved by applying UNCDF’s approach through:

• empowerment of smallholder farmers by enhancing their skills, awareness and capabilities around the opportunities and risks of big data and smart farming, and relying on digitally-enabled capacity building and skills enhancement solutions and applications;

• expand physical infrastructure to improve connectivity of remote or underprivileged smallholder farmers in an affordable way; support the emergence of open-sourced data, and publicly-funded data analytic tools whilst keeping the principles of full confidentiality and transparency and open collaborative systems so that information is accessible to more players;

• support development of inclusive innovations, technologies and services without restrictive licenses; reduce the cost of devices to unleash the full potential of big data to the largest number of smallholder farmers;

• foster enabling policies and conducive regulations for data protection, cybersecurity, consumer protection, and ethical contracts and relations across the digital ecosystem.

Big data-enabled smart farming is a unique opportunity for smallholders and agricultural value chain players, but ethical considerations remain central to realise the full benefits of these new technologies. Neutral brokers, such as the UNCDF, can work alongside digital ecosystem players to bring to reality the vision of leaving no smallholder farmer behind in the digital era.

This editorial is solely an expression of the author personal views and opinions and do not necessarily represent those of UNCDF nor does it in any way commit the organisation.