From artificial intelligence, to precision agriculture, to the internet of things, emerging technologies have the potential to revolutionize the way food is consumed, handled and produced. But which technologies could most powerfully transform the lives of smallholder farmers? These, after all, are the people who produce as much as 80% of the food consumed in some parts of the developing world, yet make up a majority of the world’s undernourished population.
As CEO of the Southern African Confederation of Agricultural Unions (SACAU), I endeavour to give voice particularly to smallholder farmers, who produce food on less than two hectares of land with limited assets. Here in Africa, over 80% of our farmers are smallholders and they produce 70% of the continent’s food.
These five technologies have the potential to connect smallholder farmers to new resources, information, knowledge and markets. The good news is that many of these innovations already exist; the challenge lies in scaling them up in ways that are inclusive, while navigating the inevitable challenges that will accompany their uptake.
1. Improved access to electricity to increase efficiency and reduce food loss
Electricity is hardly a new innovation, but there are still many people – almost two-thirds of sub-Saharan Africa, for example – who lack access. Even where energy infrastructure exists, cost can often be a barrier.
Access to affordable, reliable and sustainable energy enables smallholders to improve efficiencies in land preparation, planting, irrigation and harvesting. It also allows them to use certain methods for storing, cooling and preserving goods. The ability of smallholder farmers to participate in global food systems depends on their access to electricity.
2. Increased internet connectivity to access information and knowledge to improve productivity on their farms
For many of us, the internet is a fundamental part of everyday life. But over 4 billion people – more than 55% of the world’s population – remain unconnected to the web.
The vast majority of smallholder farmers live in remote areas, where good, fast internet connectivity reaches less than 30% of the population. Women constitute almost half of the agricultural labour force in developing countries, yet they are less likely to access the internet than men in the same communities.
If this “digital divide” were closed, smallholder farmers could access information and knowledge-related to weather, rainfall or market demand, allowing them to grow and harvest food more efficiently. Timing has increasingly become a key source of competitiveness, and access to real-time information is crucial. To be truly transformational, internet access must be reliable, affordable and secure.
3. Mobile devices and platforms connect smallholder farmers to markets
Connectivity is not only about access to information – it is also about access to services. For example, mobile banking can give smallholder farmers access to formal financial services such as banking and loans, which they all too often lack. Take the example of Trringo: this smartphone app is being hailed the Uber for tractors thanks to how it has disrupted India’s farm equipment renting process.
Another example comes from my own organization, SACAU, where we have successfully piloted a digital aggregation platform akin to a “virtual cooperative”. Farmers can use the mobile platform for aggregation, and then leverage the volume to negotiate better prices with suppliers. This platform, designed by farmers and for farmers, also includes a host of other features. It has since been transformed into a digital highway through which services and products will flow between suppliers and farmers.
I know from the smallholder farmers we work with how important this is to them. Investing in a mobile phone as an agricultural tool has perhaps become the single most strategic decision by a smallholder farmer, and we need to make sure we’re doing everything we can to facilitate such smart investments.
4. Unique identifiers improve data about farmers, for farmers
Unique identifiers are commonly used in the developed world. When you log on to Amazon or Netflix, the site knows who you are and makes personalized recommendations based on what you have purchased or viewed before. But data about smallholder farmers in developing economies is largely based on samples and extrapolations, and is thus unreliable or incomplete.
With unique identifiers, businesses could offer tailored services, policy-makers could make more informed decisions, and knowledge institutions could make better assessments of farmers’ circumstances.
For example, the eWallet system in Nigeria has allowed the government to identify and deliver input subsidies directly to farmers based on personal and biometric information provided by smallholder farmers. As with all innovations, this technology is not a silver bullet. For unique identifiers to improve farmers’ lives, data systems must be able to guarantee that data remains anonymous for the privacy and security of individuals.
5. Geospatial analysis to help farmers make informed decisions
Geospatial technologies can help both policy-makers and individual farmers assess, monitor and plan the use of their natural resources. If smallholder farmers had access to foundational technologies – like electricity, the internet and mobile phones – then they too could use geospatial analysis to make decisions about the management of their farms and other assets. In this realm, FAO and Google are partnering to make geospatial tracking and mapping products more accessible.
If geospatial technologies were easy to download and use, a smallholder in Colombia could discover the distance to the nearest river, or a farmer in Malawi could use sensors to more efficiently manage their farm.
Some of the technologies we’ve discussed here are hardly new, so it might seem odd to see them on a list of innovations that could transform the lives of smallholders. But for these farmers, access and adoption of technology is not automatic.
It is therefore our duty to ensure smallholder farmers are not left behind in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Strong digital infrastructure is crucial for smallholders to access and create tools that empower them to make decisions about their farms and businesses. As innovation evolves, let’s continue to question how the benefits of technology are being shared and how these benefits can nurture the smallholder farmers who feed the world.
Chief Executive Officer, Southern African Confederation of Agricultural Unions (SACAU)