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Digital technologies and innovation in smallholder agriculture can secure food and livelihoods for millions


With the rapid growth of mobile phone penetration in developing countries, investments in digital and sustainable agricultural production systems promise to boost local economic development for marginalized, food-insecure small-scale producers worldwide, and create more resilient and efficient food production systems

Smallholder farmers are the economic engine of local livelihoods and a critical source of food in many countries. According to the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), over 80% of the world’s half a billion farms operate on less than two hectares of land. Although these farms account for only 12% of all farmland, they produce a third of the world’s food, including an estimated 80% of the total food produced in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.

According to the latest Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE) agricultural census, 76.8% of the country’s agrarian holdings are small farms, occupying 23% of the total agricultural area and employing 66.3% of the agricultural workforce. According to the Brazilian Ministry of Agriculture, these small-scale producers are responsible for more than half of the country's milk production, half of its pig production, and almost all beans produced in the country (91%), to name just some of the production. In fact, when all agricultural activities are combined, Brazil’s small family farms produce more than 70% of the food consumed in the country. 

Despite its critical role in food security, the sector suffers from persistently low agricultural productivity worldwide. Semi-subsistence farmers typically harvest only 30-50% of what they should be able to produce, and small-family farmers represent more than two-thirds of the world's poor. They are also particularly at risk from climate-driven shocks and fundamental changes to growing conditions. 

Technology as an ally

Today, with the rapid growth of mobile phone penetration in the developing world (ranging from 50-95%), there is a unique opportunity to deploy new, emerging digital technologies and innovations to improve food security and boost yields and the livelihoods of 100 million smallholder farmers by 2030, according to the UN. Additionally, new satellite connectivity technologies, such as Starlink — a division of Elon Musk's SpaceX, with nearly 4,000 low-orbit satellites lined up across the sky —  bring even greater communication and interconnection to smallholder farmers and indigenous and traditional communities, even in the Amazon and other remote corners of the world. Increased connectivity can spur the adoption of smart agricultural technologies by a population that has long been excluded from advances in agricultural mechanization.

These technologies include sensors, automation, artificial intelligence (AI), computer vision, and digital agricultural extension services that can provide connected farmers with cutting-edge, productivity-enhancing agricultural knowledge that improves their productivity and climate resilience. For example, smallholder farmers need access to accurate, reliable weather forecasts. Digital technologies can tailor forecasts to farmers' needs and communicate probabilistic forecasts in a manner that farmers can easily understand, interpret, and incorporate into their decision-making.

Similarly, digital innovations can improve farmers' linkages to input and output markets and financial services — for example, by facilitating e-subsidies and e-commerce, eliminating intermediaries, and connecting farmers with providers of credit and other financial services. In terms of climate change mitigation, digital technologies can also mobilize smallholder farmers to use remote sensing technology to monitor climate-related outcomes like carbon sequestration and to digitally enroll farmers in carbon credit payment schemes to help them earn compensation for the climate impacts of their sustainable farming practices.

Large corporations’ growing interest in small-family farming

Big tech companies are already involved in this effort. Microsoft, for example, has launched Project FarmVibes, which aims to bring connectivity to remote and rural areas by combining a range of cutting-edge technologies (such as cloud-free satellite imagery, heat maps, remote sensing data, AI, and computer vision) to extract intelligence from farm data and create customized information about the farm's microclimate, soil, carbon, and nutrients, among others.

Agrochemical giants are also investing in smart agriculture for smallholder farmers. In Asia, image recognition specialists Plantix and Syngenta have teamed up to launch a farming app, Cropwise Grower, that will extend access to smart farming features to half a million farmers growing staple crops such as cotton, rice, corn, and wheat. Using AI, the app will allow farmers to photograph specific crop problems and diagnose crop pests and diseases in real time. The app, which promises 93% accuracy, is now available in nine languages in India and is being rolled out in Pakistan, Indonesia, Thailand, and Bangladesh.

In Brazil, several start-ups and NGOs such as Culte and Imaflora are working with smallholders, cooperatives, and traditional communities to introduce innovations such as the use of drones, smart irrigation systems, soil condition analysis, automation, and e-commerce platforms or marketplaces to facilitate the connection of actors in the production chain, eliminating different levels of commercial, financial, and legal intermediation and reducing the cost of the final product. 

China, home to one-fifth of the world's population, is also investing heavily in scientific research, conducting experiments in unmanned farm machinery, grain drying, smart irrigation, farmland drainage, and automatic warning systems to detect crop diseases. A project at Jiangsu University, for example, mechanized the entire process of a rice farm using remote sensors to divide the entire farm into 1,107 sections that were digitally coded to track the progress and basic conditions of the soil to precisely control the amount of fertilizer and agrochemicals used in the field. The country has begun applying modern technologies such as natural geographic information systems (GIS), unmanned vehicles, and remote sensor data to agricultural production to accurately assess climate impacts, appropriately apply fertilizers, and plan future planting.

Persisting challenges: paving the way for progress

Of course, despite the opportunities, widespread adoption of this agricultural transformation still faces significant challenges. Few digital innovations are explicitly designed for low- and middle-income countries and small farms. And while digital solutions can potentially improve the lives of millions of rural poor, there are fundamental barriers to adoption. For example, mobile internet is still not available to all, with some of the largest gaps in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Besides, substantial investment will need to be allocated for training and educating farmers in using new technologies, increasing digital literacy in rural areas, establishing infrastructure to enable agricultural e-commerce, and making digital platforms user-friendly for smallholder farmers.

With the right amount of strategic investment, the digital transformation of smallholder agriculture can solve the pressing need to increase global food production by 70% by 2050, alleviate poverty and hunger, and feed a growing population expected to reach 9.4 to 10.2 billion by then.

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