Technology in agriculture must reach small-scale farmers

Monday July 17 2017

By BITANGE NDEMO
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This past week, I was a panellist at the GSM Association (an organisation that represents the interests of mobile operators worldwide) Conference in Dar el Salaam, Tanzania.

The main goal of the conference was to assess the state of the telecommunications industry, focusing on mobile as a platform for achieving Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in Africa.

In the past, such GSMA conferences focused on mobile connectivity in Africa. This is changing. Mobile has brought greater inclusivity, progress and development, and the association is now going beyond merely connecting people to basic communications.

Mobile is evolving into “a platform for creating, distributing and consuming innovative digital solutions and services,” according to the association.

Digitisation of virtually every sector is under way in many countries and in many sectors. I am particularly fascinated by agriculture because success in this sector has greater implications. 

As the global population inches closer to 10 billion, Africa is still food-insecure and inefficient agricultural practices hold it back, yet output must double to meet the growing demand.

To achieve this, Africa needs a holistic approach to agribusiness value chains.

The challenge ahead is not just food sufficiency. Consumers want high-quality food that they can trust, and much more sustainable production, yet according to IFAD, 500 million smallholder farmers in Asia and Africa produce up to 80 per cent of food.

To meet customer demands, therefore, focus must shift towards innovative production methods around smallholder farmers, use of data at all levels of the supply chain and building sustainable collaborations between farmers and other stakeholders along the supply chain.

AGRONOMIC SUPPORT

One of the world’s leading technology providers, SAP, is leading the charge to leverage technology to collaborate with Africa’s smallholder farmers to improve productivity.

The company has developed a rural sourcing management solution that links farmers to the agricultural value chain.

This mobile business application will support inclusive agricultural chains; optimise farming in developing countries; enhance direct procurement and traceability; support multiple approaches to crop-trading and traceability; and advance the technology to cope with rural infrastructures running on Cloud Platform Mobile Services.

The agribusiness supply chain system (see figure 1 below) entails provision of inputs; agricultural production and farming; origination and trading; commodity processing; food manufacturing and processing; retail distribution; and consumer. 

The crops system starts with inputs of data-rich agronomic support including recommendations of crop production techniques, farm equipment where necessary, hybrid seed, relevant fertilizer and monitoring of inputs. 

In production and aggregation (perhaps the most challenging stage of smallholder farmers especially if they do not belong to any cooperative that aggregates produce) farmers will be assisted to sort and grade the production to maximise value. 

The third, origination and trading, which also happens to be one of the most wasteful stages, with farmers losing output due to lack of storage, the system will ensure that an efficient system is in place. 

PEASANT APPROACHES

To improve production utility, the system will encourage value addition through manufacturing and distribution to retail centres as well as processing commodities for export. 

Without a clear understanding of the supply chain, farmers will continue to experience more than 40 per cent post-harvest loss.

The system will leverage Big Data to provide such information as transactional analytics, self-service or ease of use analytics. There will also be geographical information display, geo-analytics and tracing, standard geo-visualisation, information charts and dashboards and sustainability key performance indicator definition sharing with customers and partners. 

These analytics are key to the sustainability of the smallholder agriculture.

Considering that culture has dictated Africa’s agricultural practices leading to unproductive peasant approaches to food production, it is reassuring when the private sector comes up with a production disruption that does not upset land ownership practices. 

DEPLOYMENT OF AGRONOMISTS

For the past few decades, Africa’s agricultural productivity has been threatened by excessive land sub-divisions. Many experts hoped for land consolidation to enhance large-scale production but this was largely a pipe dream since land is an emotive issue in Africa.

Improved productivity from smallholder farmers will have its own implications. 

It will perhaps make farming more attractive to young people who, despite being jobless, have had no interest in becoming farmers as a strategy for wealth creation. Policymakers should leverage these initiatives, perhaps by providing some incentives to private sector working in rural areas. 

For example, governments should help deployment of agronomists and monitoring mechanisms as well as waive taxes.

There will be new entrepreneurial opportunities created in the process especially around the back-end processes, the development of micro storage facilities across the country and development of “new” farmers. 

NOT JUST FOOD

A fund is necessary to help youth invest in these new areas of investment that hitherto weren’t understood, become part of the supply chain and create wealth.  

Future jobs may not be as straightforward as we have seen before. Those who create new jobs will succeed if they closely follow how technology is evolving.

Therefore, achievement of the SDGs has more to do with how to deal with the many dimensions of goals like poverty, education and more.

Nikolai Gogol, the famous Russian dramatist of Ukrainian origin, once said, “The experience of ages has shown that a man who works on the land is purer, nobler, higher, and more moral... Agriculture should be at the basis of everything. That's my idea.”

Let’s bring back the nobility of farming through technology.

The writer is an associate professor at University of Nairobi’s School of Business. Twitter:@bantigito