Isolated farmers do not have access to information needed to respond to persistent challenges. Even basic information, such as harvest size or income are not accurately or honestly recorded. Our work with farmers has pinpointed the following areas in which farmers are lacking vital data:
- Production Data – particularly important for responding to environmental changes and preventing food loss in pre- and post-harvest seasons
- Logistics Data – critical for avoiding food spoilage by accessing markets for products and ensuring transport logistics
- Agricultural Information – for low cost, innovation practices suitable for increasing yields and managing pests
The above challenges highlight how the dearth of reliable data can lead to various inefficiencies and food loss across the supply chain as farmers cannot adequately respond to changing climates, price volatility, fluctuations on the market and failed harvests.
The absence of reliable data in farming communities is not due to it not being collected. Data is being constantly extracted from the world’s poorest communities by researchers, NGOs and commercial companies, all seeking to evidence the impact of their interventions. Yet rarely are the the data or any recommendations from its analysis shared with communities on the ground, leading to mistrust about how data is used. This lack of transparency also means that the available data is not used to its maximum potential; to create efficient, resilient and sustainable farms that are minimising waste, increasing yields and accessing relevant markets for their crops.
We recognise that those with data have knowledge and power, so we want to put that power in the hands of farmers. Using the concept of the ‘Internet of Things’, we are equipping local farming tools with sensors that relay data over 3G networks to farmers’ mobile phones.
Technology – particularly mobile-based technology – has been proven to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of agrifood value chains and agricultural activities. ICT tools continue to improve efficiency for smallholder farmers globally. Unfortunately, many mobile-based technologies are dependent on specific service providers or are tailored to farmers producing specific crops. Furthermore, new tech is increasingly dependent on farmers having access to smartphones and/or wireless, preventing the vast majority of smallholders, who often have only basic SMS phones, from participating.
Digital Farm is unique, however, as it:
1 – is not dependent on a specific mobile provider
2 – does not require wireless (just 3G networks),
3 – is rooted in using locally available tools embedded in daily farming systems,
4 – is accessible to all farmers.
This is because our model of farmer-led design has allowed us to choose the right hardware, conduct robust user-testing and have a strong understanding of local contexts, all of which we see as paramount for long-term success and sustainability.
Working closely with farmers in rural communities we have tested, developed and prototyped this technology with a crop weighing scale. This prototype detects the weight of object and relays this straight to the farmer’s basic mobile phone , giving them a record of the weight of a given crop. This information can be applied cumulatively so that knowledge of the actual weight of their entire harvests can be relayed and stored. This also gives farmers an accurate reading to combat discrepancies at the weighing centres as well as an opportunity to track payments. provide digital receipts and plot harvest records over time.
The majority of the smallholder farmers in Africa are on average over the age of 60. Many ageing smallholder farmers are uninterested in adopting new technical innovation, and many of the young people, who possess the technical skills and entrepreneurial spirit critical to the agricultural sector’s future, do not see agriculture as a viable livelihood and many leave rural communities in search of greater opportunities.
However, with Digital Farm we have begun working with proactive youth groups from farming communities in Kenya to develop our prototype further and extend the potential of Digital Farm. These young people are using their knowledge and passion for technology to work closely with farmers and transform additional tools into data-collection vehicles. Tools such as livestock tags to track animal health, transportation analysis to assess market accessibility, and irrigation systems to ensure crop survival, will be developed further and our model of farmer-led design will help assess current systems to determine further, relevant applications for this technology.
What Impact does this have?
User-testing and focus groups with farmers has confirmed that our approach will be successful in equipping farmers with critical data needed to make decisions. Farmers welcomed our low-cost and accessible prototype, dependent on a readily available farming tools, as opposed to high-tech and expensive external systems.
By rolling out this prototype to further farming tools, farmers will be able to have a wide variety of data about their farms, enabling them to:
- build resilience to climate change and pests – leading to a decrease in incidents of harvest loss
- have access to farming information to increase overall yields, quality and decrease post-harvest food loss
- be able to analyse their productivity and assess trends over time to make more informed decisions
- explore market trends – increasing their access to relevant markers and ensuring they can find a relevant market for their produce.
How does it work?
The ‘internet of things’ connects electronic sensors to everyday objects and connects them up to a network to collect and exchange data. In its simplest form, our prototype uses this principle to relay accurate measurements from the weight of crops, using 3G networks, to farmers’ mobile phones. However, we have also begun working with additional data capturing capabilities, such as location-specific data collected through GPS, audio recording, VGA camera and other low-cost external sensors including temperature gauges.
In initial prototyping the information sent to the phones is relatively straightforward, relaying simple pieces of information. However, with the increased complexity of the data being collected across the Digital Farm, we have begun collaborating with farmers to develop a straightforward and easy to administer interface that allows farmers to analyse and share complex data sets. This will allow them to receive the data in a form that is most suitable for them, allowing them to gain the most benefit from these dIgital tools and realise the full potential of the system as whole.
Also, as the breadth and scope of the data increases, our technology will begin to aggregate information from various farmers and disperse this information across the network. This will enable farmers to crowdsource information and learn more from their peers to help increase their productivity and decrease food loss in both pre- and post-harvest seasons.