Mobile technology is transforming agriculture in developing countries, exploiting the ubiquity of mobile device ownership to offer genuinely transformative services. Below CEO of WeFarm, Kenny Ewan and Meffy winner for Innovation in Mobile Technology discusses the growing role of mobile for farmers in growth markets.
Technology is everywhere, particularly in our everyday lives. The way that we communicate, do business, consume information, even the way we do our banking, is so dependent on technology that it is almost inconceivable to think of a world without the internet.
Whenever I encounter a problem my immediate instinct is to Google a solution – I imagine that you have also experienced a similar impulse too. The reflex to ‘look it up’ has become such second-nature in the West, we tend to overlook the privilege of receiving information from multiple sources, written by people all over the world, almost instantaneously.
However for many in the developing world connectivity is not an available luxury. Much of the developing world suffers from poor connectivity at best, and no internet connection whatsoever at worst. Tragically, the same group of people without internet access often do not have access to more traditional forms of information either. In short, the millions of underprivileged people who would benefit the most from information are the ones who do not.
A lot of these services provide top-down information that makes a big difference in farmers lives – they can use the information to fight pests, improve soil fertility, better negotiate prices, and increase their household incomes.
Those involved in agriculture face this exact challenge: 75 per cent of the world’s 500 million smallholder farmers live without Internet access. Smallholder farmers currently produce around 70 per cent of the world’s food, yet despite their importance in global food production, many live in poverty on less than $1 a day.
Typically, small-scale farms have low crop yield and the farmers are often at the mercy of the weather, as well as being vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Small-scale farmers live in remote areas, thus lack access to finance, agricultural inputs (like seed, fertilizer, or irrigation systems) and traditional market economies. In addition to this, they often have no way to access vital information that could help improve their livelihoods.
Mobile technology is beginning to have a large impact on agriculture within the developing world. Around 90 per cent of smallholder farmers now have access to a basic mobile phone and many projects around the world are using SMS to help farmers gain better access to finance and information.
In the next decade, it looks like the mobile phone is going to become a farmer’s new best friend.
Mobile money: increasing access to resources
Kenny Ewan speaks to MEFTV at the 2015 Meffys
M-PESA is the pioneer of m-money, and is often hailed as a game-changer in agriculture. The truth is, it really is! M-PESA enables anyone with a mobile phone to transfer funds through text message. For many farmers who don’t have a bank account, this has greatly increased the security of their money and has made it much easier to receive payments from agents buying their produce. Purchasing agricultural resources to improve crop yield is possible through mobile phones, giving farmers better access to the tools they need.
Not only does m-money give farmers more power to buy and sell products, but in the future it will also enable them to access loans and microfinance. Without a record of transactions it is impossible to persuade a bank or another institution to lend money but with transactions held in M-PESA farmers could get a loan that would enable them to set up a micro-business.
Information and data are powerful tools
There are also mobile services that provide access to vital information. Farmers can now receive information on the weather, market prices and farming techniques via SMS. A lot of these services provide top-down information that makes a big difference in farmers lives – they can use the information to fight pests, improve soil fertility, better negotiate prices, and increase their household incomes.
Knowing in advance that heavy rains are due, farmers can adjust the speed with which they harvest their crop – rather than losing half of their cotton, for example. Or if there is a particularly warm season, they can plant an additional crop that grows particularly well in that climate. With regards to agriculture, the saying that ‘knowledge is power’ certainly holds a lot of truth.
The final innovative way that mobile is transforming agriculture is through data. With millions of points of data being collected on the challenges facing farmers, diseases can be monitored, the effects of climate change can be tracked, and water shortages become apparent. Armed with real data, governments and NGOs looking to solve these problems can come up with relevant solutions and better plan how to allocate resources to solve these vital issues.
With mobile technology, smallholders can feed the world
With the global population expected to reach more than 9 billion by 2050, food consumption is expected to increase by more than 70 per cent. To put it very simply, smallholder farmers are absolutely vital in feeding the world.
At the moment, small-scale farmers have very low crop yields, because of many of the challenges I mentioned earlier. But with mobile technology giving them greater access to finance and information, every day it is becoming more feasible that smallholder farmers will be the key to global food security.
In the developing world mobile phones are beginning to solve some of the world’s most complex problems, leapfrogging the Internet, and that’s something that really deserves to be celebrated.