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Building sustainable and resilient family farms

Ajit Maru

How would you describe ‘resilience’ in the context of family farming?

Simply put, in this context resilience is the ability of a family farmer or a community of family farmers to sustain themselves successfully through shocks that affect their well-being and quality of life. Shocks to family farming can be due to external causes, such as droughts, floods, earthquakes, disease and pest epidemics or internal to a family or community, for example illness, death, debt or the fragmentation of land.

These shocks can have long- or short-term effects and can occur as a one-off, together or in sequence, as a series of disasters. The external causes usually affect large numbers of family farmers, though in some cases internal causes such as market failures or resulting debts can also affect family farmers. To bring greater resilience to family farmers we need to forecast, prevent, mitigate, overcome and adapt to the factors that affect the
well-being of family farmers so they can cope with these challenges.

What role can ICTs play in enabling greater resilience in family farming?

ICTs can contribute to greater resilience in family farming by enabling many of the actions I just mentioned: forecasting, preventing, mitigating and adapting to those causes that affect the well-being of family farmers. Many emerging ICTs can contribute to these enabling actions. Of course we are familiar with the use of radio and television to broadcast information related to disasters, but today cell phones are also used for the same purpose. In fact, cell phones can target specific individuals and communities by informing those who farm in low-lying areas of impending floods, for example.

Another emerging area is the ability to model family farms and simulate the most suitable farming system for improving their management. These solutions reduce risk and increase the resilience of farms. Of course, the role of automatic weather stations in forecasting local weather, which in turn helps in many other areas such as disease and pest management, is now becoming widespread.

How can ICTs enable family farmers, especially resource-poor family farmers, to adapt to climate change and mitigate its effects?

Climate change will affect farmers in many ways. Climate variability will cause extreme weather patterns with more frequent droughts, and sudden downpours of rain will cause floods and waterlogging, hailstorms, and hurricanes, for example. As mentioned, ICTs can play a crucial role not only in forecasting the weather but also providing information to prevent damage and destruction, and help people cope with the short- and long-term after-effects.

Resilience and sustainability of farming are also interlinked. ICTs can play a significant role in bringing sustainability to farming, for example, by preventing wastage of irrigation water and energy. Soil humidity sensors linked to sprinklers and drip irrigation can help manage water use in the most effective manner. When these sensors are linked in a network, as is now possible, then entire fields and farms can be monitored on their use of resources, such as water and soil nutrients.

Very soon, digital cameras with special filters, such as for temperature and certain optical wavelengths, will come into use to monitor crop health. These can be mounted on small drones to periodically monitor fields from an appropriate altitude. There are ICTs that enable more widespread financial services in rural areas where banks would not find it economical to operate. ICTs can even provide health services for family farmers in remote areas.

Which ICTs have helped to improve the resilience of family farmers in their farming, food security and livelihoods?

We have already seen the impact cellular telephony is having on the economic and social well-being of family farmers in many parts of the world. As mentioned earlier, cell phones in Africa are enabling this category of farmers to use services they did not have access to previously, and this is helping them to participate better in markets. Cell phones also help family farmers search for secondary occupations that augment their earnings. Many people are also unaware of the role that ICTs play in agricultural research and innovation, for example in the design and development of new seeds that resist droughts or waterlogging.

What constraints or limitations are there in using ICTs to bring more resilience in family farming?

The availability of and access to ICTs is the foremost limitation. First of all, the ICTs that are available are usually appropriated by resource-rich farmers. In today’s world, these are non-family farmers, such as corporate farmers who practice family farming. A classic example is today’s dairy industry, as well as the use of precision farming. Many of the sensor-based technologies have been appropriated by these two types of farming. Though some of the technologies can be used by smallholder family farmers as well, since they were first appropriated by large farmers, their further development has been directed by this category of farmers.

Access can be and often is limited by policies, regulations and organisational structures. For example, many national agricultural research organisations, who are the main managers of agricultural information in the developing world, are not investing in ways of opening up or sharing information that would be useful to small family farmers. These organisations’ reluctance to share is limiting the capacities of these farmers to build sustainable and resilient farms.

How can these constraints be overcome?

First, society and governments must acknowledge the role that ICTs can play in rapidly innovating agriculture and contributing to the sustainability and resilience of family farming. There is very little awareness of the role this technology can play, unlike in biotechnology, for example. And this requires advocacy and championing from the experts who are aware of the potential of this technology.

The second is the need for investment. This initially has to be done by the public sector in developing countries. The investment has to be in infrastructure, such as connectivity, or capacity building and in some cases even in the form of subsidising appropriate ICTs. Governments in many parts of the world have subsidised new irrigation technologies such as drip irrigation. So why not also subsidise sensors and sensor networks along with the drip irrigation systems as a package?

Public–private partnerships can play a significant role in this area. Many of the knowledge services that could contribute to resilient family farming will be provided by micro, small and middle entrepreneurs. The government and public sector institutions need to support the entrepreneurs financially and technically, not only so they can provide these services but also so they can innovate. This support could also generate new employment opportunities, especially for youth in rural areas, many of whom may belong to families of these farmers.

Another important limitation to overcome is the capacity to use these technologies effectively. There must be capacity development for all those working in agricultural value chains – from scientists, extension workers and farmers to transporters, processors and market intermediaries – so they can effectively use ICTs in their own activities.

How can ICTs bring more resilience to family farming in the future?

The future lies in many of the new technologies that are on the horizon, as well as in a greater awareness in family farmer communities of the potential benefits of using these technologies. Some of these emerging ICTs include the ability to manage and effectively use ‘big data’ generated on farms to improve farming. Another example is low-cost sensor technology that can monitor humidity, temperature, environmental gases and soil nutrients. This technology can be coupled with high-resolution 3D maps of farmlands, which can in turn be linked through the ‘Internet of Things’ to generate data that can be shared through cloud computing. Applications for smartphones or phablets, which allow farmers to use the data and technologies just mentioned, are another example.

In the future, a large part of the data and information used by family farmers will be self-generated by the farmers themselves. There will be a need for new forms of collaboration and cooperation for sharing and exchanging this data, information and knowledge. Social networks will be become important, and most likely social media will have a new and different role to play. All this will contribute to bringing more resilience to family farming in the future. 

Copyright © 2016, CTA. Technical Centre for Rural and Agricultural Cooperation

CTA is a joint international institution of the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) Group of States and the European Union (EU). CTA operates under the framework of the Cotonou Agreement and is funded by the EU.