Smart Agriculture and Smallholders: Issues in Using ICTs and Information

Ajit Maru, Senior Knowledge Officer at the Global Forum on Agricultural Research (GFAR) shares his recent experience at the International Conference on Intelligent Agriculture, held in Beijing in September, 2015.


Smart Agriculture

While there may be many ways to define what ‘smart agriculture’ can look like, it is clear that its practice will generate vast amounts of data that is needed to make ‘smart’ decisions.

Until recently, agriculture was perceived to be concerned with farming solely for food, and fibres such as cotton for industry. Agriculture now delivers many different products and services.

For example, a large number of farms and agricultural land will become major sources of renewable energy through solar, wind and biomass production and also provide environmental and recreational services such as cleaning water and agro-tourism.

Smart agriculture utilizes a large amount of data and information.  The practice of smart agriculture makes farm production more holistic, and considers many other factors beyond soil, water and seeds — such as ambient temperature and availability of red or blue light which propagates different stages of plant growth.

Farming is also becoming increasingly data intensive with the needs of assuring food safety and quality. In Europe today, most farmers cannot farm without access to a computer to manage information needed for regulatory agencies.

Technologies for “prescriptive planting” mean that different varieties of crops which suit a particular plot can be grown in a field to optimize productivity using diversity of seeds.

Similarly through “variable fertigation” the exact amount of fertilizer and water are made available to the plant for production. This not only brings better profits but also contributes to a better environment by reducing use of natural resources and pollution.

You can imagine the type of data that is required to support this type of farming.

International Conference on Intelligent Agriculture

The Beijing conference presented developments in information and communications technologies (ICTs) both independently and when used in combination with other technologies including biotechnology, nanotechnology, geo-spatial technologies and new materials.

The conference focused on making agriculture ‘smarter’ by improving productivity not only of land but also in the use of natural resources and energy, reduction in waste and losses, and in improving quality of products and the environment.

One workshop considered the implications of ‘smart information’ intensive agriculture for smallholder farmers. Participants agreed that the small in ‘smallholder’ refers to limited or poor resource endowment including access and ability to use information relative to other farmers in the sector, not to their aspirations.

Poverty of information prevents these farmers in participating equitably in markets which is now critical as agriculture the world over becomes more market oriented and globally competitive.

These farmers are hindered in making effective use of information in their farming because the ICTs and information they need are not:

  • Available
  • Accessible
  • Affordable
  • Applicable
  • Relevant
  • Useful
  • Timely
  • Trustworthy
  • Appropriated by these farmers and their communities due to myriad of issues such as intellectual property rights, illiteracy and cultural barriers such as gender.

Information Poverty

The above issues could be as a result of a range of factors related to hardware (computers, mobile phones etc.), software (programs, applications), connectivity (Internet, cellular), skills (use of all ICTs, literacy and education), content (data and information) – as well as  integration, coherence and interoperability of data, privacy and proprietary rights.

The information which a smallholder farmer in Africa or Asia might need is also often not available. The crops he or she grows for subsistence versus for the market are often different… how much information of local relevance on farming yam is accessible on the Internet? For rice and wheat you might have a lot, but what about managing cattle in the tropics or cultivating plantains? There remains a dearth of localized, timely, relevant and useful content that is easily accessible and trustworthy for these farmers.

Turning to the Internet is also not always an option; at the moment it is costly in Africa and the South when compared to average incomes.

Data and Information Issues

With increasing privatization and the emergence of new providers of agricultural information services (such as telecommunication services) and exit of governments supporting farm extensions, we are also faced with challenges of accessibility and affordability of advice based on factual information and analyzing and interpreting openly available public information appropriately for private good.

The workshop made several suggestions to enable smallholder farmers make effective use of data and information in their agriculture. Participants indicated that ICTs, data and information can be most effectively used by smallholder farmers when technological changes, institutions and actions by the farming and agricultural communities take place to support each other together at the same time.

Democratization of learning

To practice ‘smart agriculture’ these farmers will need to innovate and adapt technology to meet their own unique needs and will need support for learning to be innovative.

Many people today can learn using ICTs via devices such as cell/smart phones without going to a school or college. If this learning is enabled across the world, we can enter an exciting period when smallholder farmers can innovate and benefit from rational and science based mass innovation and practice their smartest agriculture.

The future lies with investment in new technologies, institutional development and enabling new capacities in smallholder farming communities so data-led smart solutions are tailored to local circumstances and can be used by information and resource poor farmers.