In Africa, smallholder farmers are in a paradoxical position: they are the major food providers on the continent, and yet still massively suffer from malnutrition and undernutrition. But they can rely on a new ally to both improve their working and living conditions and produce food in a more sustainable and efficient way: emerging technologies. New technologies are helping smallholder farmers escape this paradox and adopt more sustainable practices in the process.
Data access, the groundbreaking innovation
The penetration rate of mobile phones in Africa has dramatically increased over the past 14 years, from less than 10% in 2002 to over 50% in 2016, according to AfricTelegraph. Between 2011 and 2015, the number of mobile phones jumped from 500 million to 850 million on the continent. This surge in mobile devices means that farmers can rely on digital platforms that help them make more informed decisions and save massive amounts of time. For instance, the Southern African Confederation of Agricultural Unions (SACAU) has developed a “digital aggregation platform akin to a ‘virtual cooperative”, explains Ishmael Sunga, CEO of SACAU, on the World Economic Forum blog. Farmers can use the mobile platform for aggregation, and then leverage the volume to negotiate better prices with suppliers.” The platform was built by farmers for farmers and efficiently answers their needs. “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,” writes Ishmael Sunga.
Geospatial analysis: a better assessment of a territory’s potential
“Geospatial analysis is the gathering, display, and manipulation of imagery, GPS, satellite photography and historical data (…) as they are applied to geographic models,” explains Margaret Rouse on WhatIs.com. In other words, it is a way to catalogue natural resources in order to better monitor and manage “all kinds of phenomena affecting the earth, its systems and inhabitants.” Geospatial analysis is therefore crucial to farmers, as it provides them with the means to better assess the state of their land and natural resources, in order to best manage them. A lot of geospatial technology is actually free to use (like Google Maps and Google Earth); the barrier here is mostly having access to core technologies: electricity, Internet connectivity, mobile phones. This is why FAO and Google are partnering to make geospatial tracking and mapping products more accessible to countries tackling climate change and to experts developing forest and land-use policies, as they announced on December 1st 2016.
Drones: the game changer
But in this field, drones will have the largest and fastest impact. Drones offer evaluations that are more accurate than “simple” geospatial analysis: they can detect weeds, assess the necessary quantity of fertilizers or even monitor a territory in the case of crisis. “Our drones are capable of establishing a map or identifying an issue with a crop through an image analysis. The goal is to give to the farmer as much information as possible and lots of leeway to invest,” explains Hamza Rkha Chaham, International Director of affairs at Airinnov, a French company that makes agricultural drones, to Le Monde. Airinnov has already partnered with farmers in a handful of African countries (Ghana, Tanzania, Uganda, Benin and the Democratic Republic of Congo) to give them an overview of their services.
As new technological solutions increasingly help smallholding farms make better and more informed decisions, one important challenge remains. We must ensure that these innovations do not further widen the gap between the most vulnerable farmers and the others. Indeed, we need to secure fundamental technologies (electricity and Internet access) so that these innovations can be accessible to all. Today, over 4 billion people – more than 55% of the world’s population – remain unconnected to the web, says the World Economic Forum. If we want technology to help even the smallest holding farmers in the developing world do their job, we will need to change this.
By – Usbek & Rica -
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