Smallholders’ need for accessible digital agricultural support services

James Alden, co-founder and CCO of CHAP member Climate Edge, is passionate about the need to help farmers in developing countries access the same digital agricultural support services as their counterparts in richer countries. Here he explains that while adopting a digital strategy is difficult in these markets, it is possible, and more importantly, it is increasingly necessary.

Surging population growth has many implications for the planet and humanity. The biggest question for the nearly 4 billion people currently living in less developed countries – where 97% of global population growth is expected to occur – is what are we going to eat?

By 2050 there will be an additional 2 billion mouths to feed according to current estimates, and food production needs to increase by 50% to meet today’s business as usual per capita food production (which still leaves many people hungry).

So where will all this extra food come from?

Smallholder farmers in less developed countries could be the answer.

There are a lot of them; in fact there are more than 500 million smallholder farms of less than 10 hectares in the world.

They already produce most of the world’s food. While it is very difficult to estimate exact figures, the general consensus is that smallholders of 10 hectares or less produce up to 70% of the world’s food, and smallholders of 2 hectares or less produce up to 35% of the world’s food.

Smallholdings can produce more. When comparing like-for-like crop production, farmers in less developed countries, the majority of which are smallholders, produce between 25 per cent and 50 per cent of farms in more developed countries. Smallholders therefore have the capacity to increase output without needing increased land resources.

So, how can small farmers miraculously double their production?


Barriers to smallholder production

To find the solution, we first need to look at what is currently restricting smallholder production.

This is naturally an extremely complex issue, and the first thing to note when working with smallholders is that no two smallholders are the same. Specific challenges vary between crops, countries and local context. However, the issues can largely be boiled down to the following key themes:

Access to inputs, credit, knowledge, technology and markets

Personally, I would argue that one meta-theme emcompasses all of the above, namely a lack of information. This encompasses not only information to smallholders, but also information from smallholders.

Farmers are constantly making risk-based decisions, weighing up cost versus benefit. How much should I invest in my farm? Do I need better seed or fertiliser? When should I apply pesticides to get the best outcome? If I spend $100 to produce one extra tonne, who will buy it? And will they pay more than $100 for it?

How are smallholders supposed to answer any of these crucial questions without information, which is currently non-existent in many cases?


Technology and collaboration

There are two trends across the sector that are shedding light on the future of smallholder agriculture and how technology can provide equitable access to information in this market.

The first is the unstoppable force of mobile technology. As in Europe, mobile phones have taken over the developing world. In many cases mobile phones have allowed developing countries to innovatively jump ahead without requiring expensive and outdated infrastructure. And this is true in agriculture as well. Approximately 40% of smallholder farmers now have access to a mobile phone, meaning that there is a method for getting information to large numbers of farmers remotely, reducing the pressure on essential but expensive extension work.

The second is the slow shift to cross-sector collaboration. Businesses are realising more and more that to succeed in this promising market they cannot go it alone. Inputs such as seed, fertiliser or pesticide are frequently coupled with technical training and insurance for example. And buyers will provide agronomic advice to stabilise the quality of supply.

Technology and collaboration are needed in equal measures. Without collaboration, solutions don’t work effectively, and without technology, solutions can’t scale. The difficulty is that it is extremely difficult for organisations to be proficient in both domain expertise and technology development.


User-led design process

My colleague and fellow Climate Edge co-founder Paul Baranowski and I saw this time and time again when working in the emerging smallholder sector. We saw brilliantly innovative work that showed real promise at pilot stage, yet it was never scaled to any real number of farmers.

We would often hear similar stories as to why the services didn’t work out: it was too difficult to collect the necessary data from large numbers of farmers, we couldn’t get the same results when moving from face-to-face workshops to a mobile based application, we couldn’t integrate weather data effectively etc etc.

It is all too easy to point to factors such as low digital literacy, low financial literacy, entrenched farm management approaches or an unwillingness to change, to explain what led to these issues.

However, digging a little deeper frequently shows the real cause is poor user design by organisations that are experts in agriculture, not software development. It is not as simple as taking a service that works face-to-face with farmers and just turning it into an app. Real understanding is needed of why farmers are making certain decisions in context. The digital solution should then be created around these processes.


The smart solution

We believe there is a significant gap in the market for someone to work alongside service providers with a specific focus on translating traditional services into digital solutions that not only work for farmers but which also fit into existing agricultural processes. For example, using interactive voice response to explain technical content in areas where literacy is known to be low. Or bringing together complementary data sources so that service providers don’t have to rely on surveying farmers for every answer. By tackling these key issues from a technical standpoint, we have shown that we can increase smallholder interaction with digital products.

By focusing on smart and targeted user-centred design, we can kickstart the digital transformation of smallholder agriculture, and therefore provide smallholders with the resources needed to boost productivity and provide a realistic answer for how we can feed the world in 2050.

Climate Edge is a social enterprise dedicated to increasing the profitability and stability of smallholder agriculture. Its mission is to revolutionise how services are delivered to this market. For more information visit the website.

For more information about CHAP membership, go to Membership Info.

Please note, the opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of CHAP. 

To learn more about how technology is revolutionising agriculture, read our latest article for our Focus on Data Diagnostics: The Rise of the Digital Farm, by Keith Norman.