Netflix-inspired tools can reap rewards for farmers, says Nobel winner

by Sonia Elks | @SoniaElks | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 12 December 2019 18:52 GMT

A farmer shows an irrigation management system app on his mobile phone at a coffee plantation in Sao Sebastiao do Paraiso, Brazil April 22, 2019. Picture taken April 22, 2019. REUTERS/Amanda Perobelli

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A rush of innovation aimed at helping the smallholder farmers has seen the development of phone-based agricultural advice tools

By Sonia Elks

LONDON, Dec 12 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - What does online streaming giant Netflix have in common with smallholder farmers? Both can benefit from sharing data, according to one of this year's Nobel prize winners.

Much as entertainment service Netflix bases recommendations on what viewers have watched, mobile phone-based tools could be used to mine information from some of the world's poorest farmers in return for customised advice.

The growth in mobile phone use means such crowdsourced information could be easily distributed, helping small farmers improve yields, said Michael Kremer, co-winner of the 2019 Nobel in economic sciences.

"Some of the real gains from this will come from customisation," the Harvard professor told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from Stockholm where he picked up his award this week.

"If you can customise information so farmers are getting information on the weather for their particular local area, for the crops they grow, if there's an outbreak of a pest ... you can start to see some of the potential."

A rush of innovation aimed at helping the smallholder farmers who provide most of the world's food has seen the development of a range of phone-based agricultural advice tools by governments, companies, and non-profit organisations.

Farmers who use the services see their yields raise by an average of about 4% - and technology developments will make them even more effective, predicted Kremer and two co-authors in a research paper published in the journal Science on Thursday.

The services could also offer a chance to gather information for far-flung and disparate smallholders which highlight shared issues or opportunities, they said, and allow the tools' creators to hone their advice in response.

Farmers could be incentivised by the offer of advice tailored to the information they send, said the paper.

A farmer who reports a bug attacking their crops could be used to warn other farmers and create a map of the infestation, said Kremer, who is based in the United States.

Kremer, one of three people awarded the 2019 economic Nobel for an "experimental approach to alleviating global poverty", said the spread of digital advice tools was growing rapidly and could have a real impact on small farmers.

"There's two billion people who live in households engaged in smallholder farming – almost a third of humanity and two thirds of the world's poor," he said.

"Right now, the number of people who are reached is a small fraction of the potential. There is a lot of interest and a lot of growth in this area because more and more of the farmers have phones and more and more will have smartphones over time."

(Reporting by Sonia Elks @soniaelks; Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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