Game changers: digital agriculture and new technologies

tablets-in-india
Tablets being used at a Plantwise plant clinic in India. Photo: CABI

ICTs play a pivotal role in facilitating solutions for smallholder farmers and the markets they are trying to access. For GLOBALG.A.P., the world’s leading farm assurance program, the only way to make the auditing of the 160,000 farms it covers economically viable is through technological solutions. CABI’s Plantwise programme also relies on ICTs for collecting data from plant clinics and to share plant health knowledge via the Knowledge Bank. Similarly, the provision of micro-finance and insurance services for smallholder farmers has only been made possible through advances in mobile technology.

At the “Future of Small Farms” conference, organised by CABI and the Syngenta Foundation on 24-25 January in Basel, four challenges were identified when it comes to introducing new technologies for smallholders:

  • Access to technology (e.g. smart phone penetration in Africa is only 5% although rising rapidly)
  • Literacy (e.g. only 56% amongst smallholders in India, 20% lower than the national average)
  • Behavioural change
  • Demonstrable benefits (the agricultural cycle limits quicks returns)

The jury is still out on whether marginalised subsistence farmers (the third group identified in a previous post) will benefit from, or be further disadvantaged by, digital technologies. While ‘Big Data’ is often touted as a game changer, the ownership of the information and a sustainable business model pose major practical and ethical challenges. This is why initiatives such as GODAN (Global Open Data for Agriculture and Nutrition) support the proactive sharing of open data – not big data – to make information about agriculture and nutrition available to everyone.

Mahindra, India’s leading farm equipment manufacturer, addresses some of these constraints by working with small farmers and governments and by forming PPPs. It has introduced systems for renting out tractors (sometimes referred to as the ‘Uberisation’ of smallholder agriculture) and monitoring them remotely (telemetrics). The benefits technological advances can offer smallholders, calculated at $55 billion, can perhaps be most clearly seen in India’s cotton sector. The state of Gujarat, heavily reliant on agriculture, was able to grow its economy at 9% a year for 10 years. India’s innovation is also not just limited to agricultural equipment; farms in India are increasingly investing in solar energy and feeding back surplus electricity to the grid to generate additional income.

This article is part of a series covering the issues raised at the “The Future of Small Farms” conference hosted by CABI and the Syngenta Foundation, compiled by Jonathan Shoham. Subscribe to the Plantwise blog to receive notifications of new articles by email.

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