What Role Can Technology Play in Smallholder Farms?

Mandla Nkomo, Managing Director at Solidaridad Network – Southern Africa, shares his view on the role of digital solutions in supporting smallholder farmers. Below, he highlights some of the immediate areas of opportunity within the smallholder sector.

One of the biggest issues we face is that by 2050 there will be nine billion people on the planet. To be able to feed our population at current consumption rates, this means we need to deliver more food with the same amount of land and water available.

It is therefore imperative that issues of efficiency and climate change adaptation will drive this transformation in agriculture for a sustainable world. 

In the case of Africa, one cannot talk about growth within the continent without including smallholder farmers. This is especially true for countries such as Malawi and Zambia, where 90% of production is driven by smallholders.

Driving Transformation in Agriculture for a Sustainable World

Over the past five years, Solidaridad has developed and applied ICT tools in the field to provide smallholder producers with rapid and critical analysis of their performance. These self-assessment tools have provided pertinent information related to sustainability issues.

From this experience, Solidaridad has developed Farming Solution, a mobile application, that helps farmers identify best practices and areas of improvement. This application also supports farmers to organize their work and learn more about farming and management practices. At present, Farming Solution is being tested in the field to ensure it is responsive in different contexts.  

ICT tools such as Farming Solution can enable producer's practices to be compared with external norms and standards. This is important as it enables producers to overcome barriers that prevent them from producing sustainably, and accessing bigger markets. For companies sourcing produce from smallholders, these tools can also ensure quality of supply and information to support initiatives such as outgrower schemes.

Technical Assistance at an Individual Level

ICT tools can provide a wealth of information that enables targeted technical assistance at an individual level. In addition, they can support the design of programmes that tackle farmers’ most common challenges. For example, in Mexico, Colombia and Peru, Solidaridad applied a carbon calculator to increase yields on existing land, by monitoring their environment and sharing best practices between them.

Currently, all “smart farm” talk revolves around large commercial farming, but there are more smallholders than commercial farmers in Southern Africa. In terms of the sheer number of smallholders globally, any incremental change in smallholder performance will have massive global implications. One therefore cannot talk about transforming the sector from a food security perspective without involving smallholders.

Including Smallholders Is Key

If smart technologies are going to shift the dial, this dial needs to be shifted in the smallholder farming space. When we take a deep dive into exploring how digital solutions can transform smallholder farms, as proposed by all the smart farm talk; the question is:

How do we give farmers actionable insights in a way that improves productivity? More importantly, at what point in a farmer’s activity would they benefit from those insights?

There are many opportunities for the use of technologies to build these usable insights. For example, weather forecasting and satellite technology can reduce that information to the farmer’s location to derive rain and sunlight predictability. Or, if they are going to get frost, it could allow them to understand how severe will it be. This puts the farmer in a position where they have future insights about their environment and can prepare accordingly.

Technology Supports, Not Saves

Beyond that, the greatest tool the farmer has is his or her soil. Therefore, insights on soil nutrition to improve its fertility are useful. This is where Internet of Things devices and sensors may become important as they can assist to assess the quality of the soil and inform the farmer about their soil fertility.

However, while technology remains a great enabler, one cannot replace human contact from any farming operation. Common practice in the region puts the extension officer  as the point of contact on most farms. One of the thoughts prevailing in the sector is the need to have a modern approach towards rural extension based on evidence and data to provide efficient assistance and motivation for farmers.

A complementary approach between digital solutions and direct contact can enhance the impact of smallholder producers.  To achieve this, we need to interrogate the necessary levers that will drive productivity and increase yields for the smallholder farming sector.

In our endeavor to lift as we rise, my hope is that we continue to drive an inclusive agriculture economy towards smallholder producers. Especially for the poorest and most remote, who are currently not in a position to reap the benefits of technology.