By: Business Call to Action
For Shantilata Sahu, a farmer in India’s Odisha state, low soil fertility and old farming methods had led to lower crop quality and yield. Meanwhile, in Ghana, Evelyn Sabunor lost an entire season of crops due to heavy, unseasonal rainfall.
Sahu and Sabunor are both smallholder farmers. In fact, more than 80% of the world’s farms are small farms, those that operate on two hectares or less of land – about the size of three football fields. According to the 2014 State of Food and Agriculture report, 90% of these farms are run by families or individuals. And in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, where Sahu and Sabunor work, such small farmers contribute to 80% of food produced.
When the UN declared 2014 as the International Year of Family Farming, it recognised the contributions of family farmers and smallholders to food security, poverty reduction and sustainable development.
Despite these contributions, small farmers remain a vulnerable group in developing countries, susceptible to multiple factors that lead to low-incomes, low-yield and high-risk undertakings. As a result, such farmers account for a large proportion of the poor.
The private sector offers solutions. Across the agricultural value chain, from knowledge and training to solutions for adapting to climate change, and from financial services and better market linkages, businesses are contributing to sustainable agriculture and expanding market opportunities – and agricultural technology has played a key role.
The role of technology and data in sustainable food supply chains
For Sahu, the “soil-to-shelf” platform Blooom, developed by the company eKutir, assisted the 30-year-old family farmer in moving from being a subsistence farmer to a commercial one.
How does Blooom enable this? “Through a fully integrated platform for sustainable food supply chains, assisting farmers in better decision making, with ‘better’ seen as risk-mitigated and time-bound,” explains Suvankar Mishra, at Blooom.
The Blooom platform itself is a smartphone app that offers multiple services starting from data acquisition – Blooom collects data about the farm and land, crops and soil along with associated risks. This then moves to the smart farming module of the platform whereby through data collected it can assist farmers in crop planning, fertiliser application and pest and seed management.
The platform allows for a learning process through customised training and content, that helps plug the knowledge gap of famers. This is also done through local “influencer” farmers who can act as last mile agents by linking farmers. In fact, “94% of learning among farmers happens because of peer-to-peer exchanges”, says Mishra, which play a “pivotal role in behaviour changes of farmers”, and leads to wider digital adoption.
With the insight it collects, Blooom is also able to assess farmers’ risk and recommend appropriate solutions, such as better credit and insurance products for farmer clients. The app then connects farmers to local buyers.
“Having this technology helped me receive quality seeds, leading to good crop yield and reduced crop loss,” says Sahu. The family is motivated to take up organic farming next and connect with fair trade buyers.
Digitalising agriculture payments
Similarly, technology used by the business Equator Kenya kept workers safe and its supply chain intact during Covid-19. Equator Kenya works with thousands of small-scale farmers along the Kenyan coast in the production of bird’s eye chilies, which are exported across the world. The business manages the entire value chain from production and collection to drying and export.
Since its beginning, Equator Kenya has relied on a supply chain management system called eProd, says Almut van Casteren, the CEO. “The use of eProd deepened since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic.” Among its many remote abilities, eProd allows for the digital input of the quantities of chillies delivered by farmers, which is seamlessly integrated with a payment system for “touchless” payments to farmers, explains van Casteren.
Just before lockdown started, the company was able to distribute farming inputs, such as fertiliser and biopesticides, to its 8,000 farmers as the planting season began. The use of technology made the company’s operations much more efficient and improved its service delivery to the farmers, by managing the distribution of such quality inputs and sending weekly SMSs with production advice and weather forecasts and alerts, says van Casteren. Through an automated collection and payment process via mobile money, farmers had cash readily available, despite travel restrictions.
The digital deposit of money into farmers’ accounts allowed for more efficiencies. Bendera Chembe Katsui, a farmer group leader, said that mobile payments made his work easier. Before, he used to individually visit farmers to hand over their payments in cash, but he finds it much safer to not be handling big amounts of money in the field. Additionally, farmers have started receiving advances from banks, as now they have bank accounts, added Katsui.
Nasser Alkahtani, executive director of the Arab Gulf Programme for Development, a Business Call to Action partner in advancing inclusive business through financial inclusion, says: “Empowering smallholder farmers is fundamental to achieve financial inclusion and food security. It is time that we accelerate solutions including microcredit, small saving, agro-insurance, financial education and digitalisation to smallholder farmers, growing their income.”
Tech for climate action adaptation
Meanwhile, using technology in delivering services to farmers can help lower risks and lead to better planning.
Recent changes in weather patterns, worsened by climate change, are making years of indigenous knowledge and traditional farming practices irrelevant. Ignitia is a tropical weather forecasting company providing services in West Africa through iska – a weather forecaster developed for smallholder farmers in the region.
For Sabunor, who lost her crop due to excessive rain and had to pull her daughters out of school because of lost income, iska has allowed for better planning. “We had no way of knowing there was going to be heavy rain – we planted all our crops at once and lost everything,” she says.
When it comes to countries’ tropical climates, global weather predictions are unsuitable as the weather is dependent on different patterns, says Liisa Smits, CEO of Ignitia. “One of our main points [in developing iska] was designing a service for farmers that is actionable, and [appreciating]the importance of quality information versus general,” says Smits. As a result of creating technology suitable to tropical West Africa, iska has an 84% accuracy rate.
This knowledge can be implemented throughout the farming cycle – be it for land planning by knowing when the season starts, to crop planning by choosing crops based on seasonal forecast, to seed purchase such as drought-resistant seeds in case of dry spell predictions.
“The forecasts reach farmers via SMS, for which a farmer is charged through micro-instalments deducted from pre-loaded mobile phone credit,” says Smits, adding that the two-day, monthly and seasonal weather forecasts received allow for better decision making.