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Leveraging Data from the Changing Skies to Build Resilience to Farmers in Africa

AGRF 2020

September 3, 2019

Farmers are finding themselves in a world where many organizations, startup and established, are tackling their biggest challenges with digital innovations, from farm input distribution to financial and advisory services. Many of them are collecting data from the sky, via drone and satellites. Director General of CIMMYT, Marin Kropff, kicked off the session by introducing us to digitization of crop selection for smallholder farmers.

How will the farmer stay involved when digitization happens, asked a passionate audience member, concern that some farmers may have around automation. An apt response from a CIMMYT colleague remarked that, “you still involve the farmers in the selection. The farmer is the end user, so you don’t exclude them using the tool.”

Drones are useful as a means of quick, large-scale data collection. Ingabire Muziga Mgaries, Managing Director of Charis UAS (Unmanned Aerial Solutions) told the audience that the base of data collection is mapping and surveying. Based in Cote D’Ivoire, since 2017, they have done 6,000 flights already as a license drone company in Rwanda, Tanzania and Ghana. By the end of the year they plan to serve three more countries. They are a CTA partner, and with their help, know that what may seem like a dream is a reality for Charis UAS.

There is a chronic gap in access to weather data in Africa. Michel Lavollay, Founder, Public Private Partnership Europe argues that there is a strong link between weather and strengthening value chains. A good example of a long-term, multi-stakeholder partnership in kilimo salama, that has shown success in three countries. A final example is that Greece is going to fund 5,500 weather stations to create 200,000 jobs, something that initiatives in Africa can take note from.

Weather drives agriculture, says David Bergvinson, the Chief Science Officer of aWhere, where they crunch 8 billion data points, integrating the granularity of weather stations with the coverage of satellites. The value of the impact of weather translates to about $17 billion in the case of Africa. Due to variability in weather across a region, having a tool like aWhere allows tailored recommendations to different farmers. With active subscriptions in Ethiopia, Kenya, Zambia and Zimbabwe, it’s an impactful innovation to “take agronomy to scale.”

A curious audience member wanted to know of aWhere, “how do you provide practical information to farmers? For example, (a farmer would ask) should I plant this week or wait two weeks?” David replied that aWhere was able to boost production in a pilot in India by providing an SMS to farmers. They measured soil moisture and compared it to the coming weeks’ forecast. When they saw that farmers had enough rain, they sent an SMS for them to act.

Agritech has come a long way in the last 10 years, from SMS pricing information to more sophisticated solutions, according to panelist Ethel Delali Rangi, Director General, Women in Tech Africa. The concern is that the challenges we are tackling are still “necessity solutions,” focused on needs that an average university student is familiar with based on where they have grown up. Agritech needs to solve larger challenges.

Preventing the side effects, costs, of “surveillance capitalism,” is critical when considering digitization that forces farmers to bear the cost, according to Professor David Hughes, UN Fellow in Plant Production and Protection, FAO. Examples of such negative externalities can be seen in the erosion of democracy in the US and Europe. The smallholder farmer becomes the product if they continue to use services for free. If we look at Africa, how can someone with small daily money pay for data when rich countries are not? A good question that requires answering.

We are at the point of a crisis in agriculture, and therefore resilience needs to be at the center of what we do. Climate change, market forces, and the lack of private sector support, are challenges for farmers. According to Dennis Rangi, Director General, Development, CABI, investment and Public Private Partnerships (PPPs) will be the solution. Emmanuel Nkurunziza, Director General, Regional Centre for Mapping Resource for Development (RCMRD), agrees that incentives for large platforms being built by startups are critical. 

Read the full declaration here