Agriculture's technology revolution needs to be democratic if smallholder farmers are to benefit

by Andy Jarvis | CIAT (International Center for Tropical Agriculture)
Wednesday, 7 March 2018 15:00 GMT

Hiroki Iwasa, a 40 year-old IT entrepreneur with an MBA, touches strawberries at his high-tech greenhouse in Yamamoto Town, Miyagi prefecture, Japan June 21, 2017. Picture taken June 21, 2017. REUTERS/Kaori Kaneko

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Autumn in the Central Valley of California means harvest time for almonds. Imagine picturesque lines of trees, full and heavy under the autumnal hues – and, fleets of agribots.

Equipped with artificial intelligence and sensors, these machines have replaced traditional methods of handpicking the nuts which consisted of shaking the trees vigorously so the almonds fall to the ground for easy collection.  

‘Going robotic’ is just one trend in the technological revolution widely proclaimed as the future of agriculture.

This revolution brings with it precision farming tools, automated farming and big-data driven advisory services - to name just a few - which are helping farmers reduce waste, increase productivity, and reduce production costs.

Which is what we need to ensure enough food is produced to feed the globe’s incessantly growing population.  

With the sector finally moving to catch up with other digitised industries, there has been a boom in agri-tech startups and private sector investments in new markets and innovations. It is a tremendously exciting and vibrant space.

Unless you happen to be a smallholder farmer.

In developing countries, the vast majority of farmers own plots of two hectares or less and can’t afford digital technologies - like those of the robotic almond-tree shakers.

Despite that, smallholder farmers are producing around one-quarter of the world’s food on farms smaller than 2 hectares, and about half on farms less than 20 hectares.

It’s not that innovation is not happening in developing countries. In recent years there has been a proliferation of startups striving to provide innovative services to farmers.

But examples of success are scarce and the vast majority of startups fold within their first few years.

A big part of the problem is that the business models for the digital transformation in agriculture are less viable when you move to small farms with limited capital. Furthermore, many parts of the developing world represent a ‘black hole’ when it comes to data availability, a precursor in many cases to establishing digital services and solutions to farming.

So whilst the tech revolution is finally happening in agriculture, unfortunately in its current form it is neither inclusive nor democratic. This so-called digital divide means that smallholder farmers are at a greater disadvantage in an ever more globalized food system.  

Forging a digital revolution in smallholder agriculture requires democratizing access to data and technological advances and translating these advances for use by the full range of farm types out there. It’s all about context.

Even if robots make their way to developing countries, like those in Africa, they will have little success unless they are cheap enough and adapted to the terrain and crops of the continent.

Currently, mobile technology offers the biggest opportunity to promote data-driven agronomy for small-scale agriculture. In Africa, almost all smallholders have access to cellphones and mobile money. Smartphone penetration is constantly increasing.

The built-in sensors and cameras could be used by growers to diagnose crop diseases and get custom crop management advice. Through Facebook, they could even monitor the spread of livestock infection.  

The incorporation of mobile technology in agriculture is also inspiring a new wave of interest in farming - youths.

Of course, there are some challenges along the way. According to a report by the U.S. Agency for International Development, women are 30% less likely to have access to cellphones than men.

To democratise this technological revolution for smallholder agriculture, massive investment is needed.

Relying on the private sector alone to do so won’t be enough; the international community must step in and provide the right enabling environment to lead the market in the right direction, to build effective and democratic data-driven services and technologies.

There needs to be investments in digital infrastructure such as local network access for rural areas, as well as incentives for universities and research institutions to develop innovations for small-scale farmers.

I have no doubt that technology is the future of agriculture, and it can disrupt a failing food system for the better. But we need to shape what that future will look like. A successful agricultural revolution will be one that is democratic and inclusive, where everyone benefits..

Andy Jarvis co-founded the CGIAR Platform for Big Data in Agriculture and is among those credited for developing one of the most widely used global data sets on climate, WorldClim. He is currently the research area director on decision and policy analysis at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture. He holds a PhD in Geography from King’s College London.