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Smart farming needs smart farmers

AGRF 2020

In ten years, African farmers will be growing food smarter, faster and more efficiently. But there is a catch. 

Smart agriculture will not happen without smart technology that farmers can access, understand and use, digital researchers are convinced.

From drones, artificial intelligence to satellite generated data in growing food that is the future of agriculture come 2030. But futurist food production harnessing new technologies will remain futurist unless farmers embrace innovative technologies being deployed to solve the many challenges of feeding a growing world population, a panel session at the on-going African Green Revolution Forum in Ghana, heard.

A panel session on Agriculture Smart Farming for Africa in 2030, highlighted the potential of digital technology in improving food production in Africa but that appropriate infrastructure and effective policies are needed that will not hinder agriculture technology development.

“Digital innovation by itself is not a solution but a mechanism is needed to reach vision of smart farming by 2030, said  Steward Collins, Senior Program Officer, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Hamza Rkha Chaham, cofounder of SOWIT, says the availability of technology in Africa is important to be able to measure and building solutions to existing networking systems and extension services to be available to farmers. The precision farming technologies deployed by SOWIT use drones and sensors give farmers information they can use to improve their productivity and increase yields.

“Actionability is very important, are you able to  see information and tell the farmer know that he or she has water stress or are you simple able to say it is stressed but do not know it is  a disease, water or fertilizer. Characterising is important in making the information actionable and accessible to the farmers,” Chaham said noting that the issue of access to technology is also key in Africa because is one thing to diagnose problems and another to be able to transfer the information to the farmers in a simple and understandable way.

Krishna Kumar, founder and CEO of Cropin, an innovative agribusiness application bringing farmers and other service providers by harnessing data to provide solutions for farm management, agribusiness, pack house management, input channel management and traceability for farming, risk assessment and technology for young farmers.

Risks in smart farming

Noting the risk in farming business, Mercy Corps developed its AgriFin Accelerate Program to close the gap of financial exclusion for smallholder farmers who have no access to affordable financial services. 

Working with 100 private sector partners including banks, payment companies, insurance companies to develop, test and scale bundled financial services for small holder farmers. The services which include value added information and financial services, offered in Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia and Nigeria have reached 3.5 million smallholder farmers. 

“The banks have the money but the risks are so high, the need for food in the food markets are there but farmers cannot meet the demand for food,” said Leesa Shrader, Director at Mercy Corps, adding that, “We have to start at ground zero and help smallholder farmers step over that gap and enter a whole new era for productivity.”

Shrader said smart farming is critical because markets are blind as they do not know where the smallholder farmers are, what they do and what happened last season. Besides, weather variability has also been a ‘wildcard’ increasing the risk for farmers in producing crops, thereby necessitating the need to share data that will be used in developing appropriate solutions.

Heike Baumuller, Senior Researcher Department for Economic and Technological Change at the Center for Development Research (ZEF) said digital solutions can benefit for smallholder farmers but they tend to be used elsewhere in the agriculture sector value chain. However, an efficiency and competitive agriculture sector with good access to finance for SMEs will help smallholder farmers.

“If you think about investment, skills and infrastructure we need to think of tomorrow’s digital solutions not only today’s this is why we talk about 2030 because 2030 is ultimately a stepping stone towards more smart agriculture,” said Baumuller.

Realizing agriculture through new technology will need skills, including from farmers to be able to use the technology, while business support is key to drive the right interventions of technology for agriculture transformation, said Amrote Abdella, Regional Director, Microsoft 4Africa.