To feed the world, we must tackle the digital divide

by Martien Van Nieuwkoop | World Bank
Friday, 21 December 2018 16:58 GMT

A farmer uses a mobile phone on her morning glory vegetable field in Bach Lien village outside Hanoi, March 31, 2010. REUTERS/Kham

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500 million smallholder farmers need access to technology - from robotic harvesting equipment, to AI-powered advice apps

Agriculture is getting a reboot.

Food demand is growing, diets are shifting, and as weather patterns become increasingly unpredictable, so does a farmer’s harvest. The recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report warned that global warming of 2 degrees may cause corn yields to shrink by 15 percent.

Moreover, efforts to curb agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions are falling short. The process to get food on our plate makes the agriculture sector the biggest climate change contributor after energy use.

That is one of the reasons why agriculture is turning to tech to transform how we farm. From robotic harvesting equipment, to AI-powered advice apps, farming is becoming more precise, productive and efficient.

But what about the farmers who don’t yet have access to these tools and technologies? Much of our diet is sustained by approximately 500 million smallholder farmers growing crops like rice and coffee in the developing world. 

If we are to stand a chance of feeding the world in the face of a changing climate, these farmers need to be part of the digital revolution. So how can we ensure they are included?

Digital technologies are powered by data that helps farmers make better decisions on their farm. To boost access to this data in the developing world, data collection is often the first port of call. Unlike countries such as the United States that have been collecting information on crop yields, weather patterns and soil moisture for decades, most developing nations have a “black hole” of farm data.

Here citizens and scientists can join forces to collect information. The International Water Management Institute has developed a mobile weather station that runs only on open-source software and parts available locally in Sri Lanka. It costs just $750 – compared to traditional weather stations that come in at around $10,000.

The Lanka Rain Water Harvesting Forum has installed these mobile weather stations at a dozen schools in Sri Lanka, recruiting hundreds of students to join the weather data collection efforts.

The power of this data can save entire harvests – as rice farmers in Colombia can attest to. After scientists at CIAT analysed large sets of weather data, they advised rice farmers to delay planting their crops in the first two annual growing seasons due to adverse weather conditions. The 170 farmers who followed the advice avoided a staggering $3.6 million in losses.

DATA AS COLLATERAL

Enabling the collective purchase of technology is another way to bridge the digital divide for smallholder farmers.

For the women of the Aaranyak Agri Producer Company in the Purnea district in Bihar, India, receiving regular SMS updates with weather information and agronomic tips gave their corn crop a major boost. When it came to selling their produce, however, the low prices offered by middlemen meant they lost out on good profits. The group decided to get together and purchase a digital moisture meter, which tests the quality of the corn and ensures the women get a fair price for their produce. This profit can then be invested back into their farming operations, allowing them to grow and sell more.

Getting a digital record of farmers’ operations can even unlock much-needed financing.

Over 4,000 farmers in Uganda’s mountainous south-western region of Butare have set up digital profiles, which map the location, size and productivity and their farms. 

Unmanned aerial vehicles survey the skies to collect complementary information. When combined, this data is able to act as collateral for these farmers to receive fertilizer and credit to grow their business. The data gives a credible forecast of what farmers need, and whether they will be able to repay loans.

WHO BENEFITS?

These stories are full of promise but the arrival of digital technologies to farms also raises serious questions.

For example, will the digital transformation of the food system create new jobs or destroy them? Will data generated be used to improve the sharing of economic benefits or will information be captured by a few powerful players? Will technologies lead to a sound use of natural resources or will they instead accelerate their depletion?

This is where governments need to step in, and create policies that will ensure digital innovations in farming benefit players of all sizes in the food value chain. This is particularly the case in developing countries, where access to digital innovation could level the playing field for smallholder farmers.

Figuring out how to roll out traceability systems like blockchain could unlock higher rewards for small producers who practice low-emissions, sustainable agriculture. Boosting the revenue of smallholder farmers would have a major impact on global development and its related goals – from hunger and poverty reduction to land restoration, climate resilience and economic growth.

The challenge of feeding the world is too great to tackle without 500 million smallholder farmers on our side. Bridging the digital divide will be key to unlocking their potential, and ensuring our growing population can be fed sustainably into the future.