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Can access to data really transform agriculture for smallholders?

Igara profilers in a tea field

In order to feed 9 billion people by 2050, sustainable agricultural growth in needed, supporting an agricultural sector which produces enough food, which is inclusive and resilient, and which makes optimal use of innovation and digital solutions. Smallholder and family farmers must play a key role in achieving this. A 80% of the world’s food supply is produced by small-scale and family farmers, yet their full production potential is hardly reached.

To strengthen resilience and productivity of these smallholder farmers, they need an enabling environment that supports their access to critical resources such as finance, markets, inputs, information and technical solutions. This issue of ICT Update uncovers the power of organised smallholder farmers. Through a series of case studies, we explore how farmers’ organisations can make use of farmer data to enable access to resources, thereby strengthening the resilience, voice, or livelihoods of smallholder farmers.

The Pan African Farmers Organisation (PAFO) has been working with CTA and AgriCord in the Data4Ag project to identify how data can be used by their organisations to improve the livelihoods of their members. Working with 10 farmers’ organisations across Africa, they have been investigating how managing farmer profile data can change agribusinesses. Some of these test cases are seeing the benefits: highest crop returns for 15 years; new countries as markets for produce; improved logistics; policy influence and access to credit. However, the story varies by crop and location and there are clear challenges with connectivity, limited economic benefits and complexity in data management.

AgriCord, a global alliance of agri-agencies, finds that digitalisation for agriculture breaks paradigms. “We see that through digitalisation, there is much more access and there are many more possibilities, also for women to participate in the economy”, says Stefaan Bonte, Strategic Partnership Facilitator at AgriCord. Through mobile applications, many women are able to access innovations in an autonomous way, challenging the paradigm that innovation is less accessible to women. PAFO has similar findings; through applications and e-extension, digitalisation empowers women with access to mobile phones to market their produce and access finance, where they were previously dependent on their male peers. This allows women to become decision-makers, and move from subsistence producers to economic actors, hence giving them more power over their own lives.

For digitalisation in agriculture to truly benefit smallholder farmers, interventions are needed in multiple areas. In this issue we examine how the foundation of farmers profile data plays a role in four areas of agricultural operation: Production, Markets, Finance and Organisation.

Organisation

Digitalisation is not only a technical issue; in many cases it’s a socio-political one. On the one hand, data becomes available to farmers which enables them to make informed-decisions, on the other hand, data becomes available about farmers, making visible the challenges farmers face and enabling targeted solutions. Accurate knowledge on the members of an association or agribusiness ensures more efficient operations in the organisation and better representation of the groups’ interests, as you can read in the stories of SACAU and EAFF.

Markets

NUCAFE, the Ugandan National Union of coffee farmers’ association, tells their story of how profiling and mapping has helped expand their market and secure higher revenues for their coffee. New markets open up when the farmer-owned businesses or associations can proof product origin, through opportunities for certification and transparency.

Finance

Inputs in agriculture and investment in sustainability depend on finance, which for smallholders has been limited if not non-existent. In the projects presented, farm profiles are now used to access credit and engage banks. For Igara Tea Growers Factory, farmer profiles have supported the set-up of a SACCO, in which digital farm profiles act as collateral and reduce the financial risk involved in lending to their members. You can also read how EARS uses aggregated data to provide smallholders with affordable drought insurance.

Production

Farmer data generated on-farm or off-farm can inform services to farmers that allow targeted production information, be it alerts on risks (weather and pests) or extension information such as crop husbandry. In Kenya, CLI-MARK shows us how weather data increases resilience of pastoralist communities and AgriCord discusses preliminary findings on soil scanner services for smallholder farmers.

A recent workshop organised by PAFO, AgriCord and CTA with partners from Central, West, East, Southern and North Africa, on capacity development for African farmers’ organisations through improved policies, technologies and capabilities, showed that data is crucial to enable access to finance for smallholder farmers. Access to finance enhances farmer resilience as it enables them, for example, to adopt more sustainable coping strategies. As such, access to finance can help stabilise agribusinesses and catalyse further investments, as farmers become more eligible for loans. Collection and verification of data that can unlock access to finance, however, requires investment. Key is to work out the cost of registration versus the benefit of returns. As Dr. Mizzi, Head of Unit Rural Development, Food Security, Nutrition, Europeaid, European Commission, put it: “In agriculture the first investors are farmers themselves”. We thus need to let digitalisation work for farmers, with a special focus on inclusion for women and youth in agribusiness development. Drawing from the lessons learned during the workshop, PAFO, CTA and AgriCord will continue to work on three key areas: policy dialogue, digitalisation and data-drive services, and markets and agribusiness development.

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In order to feed 9 billion people by 2050, sustainable agricultural growth in needed, supporting an agricultural sector which produces enough food, which is inclusive and resilient, and which makes optimal use of innovation and digital solutions. Smallholder and family farmers must play a key role in achieving this. A 80% of the world’s food supply is produced by small-scale and family farmers, yet their full production potential is hardly reached.

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A digital farmer profiling initiative, which enables coffee to be traced back to its roots, is paying off for smallholder farmers in Uganda. NUCAFE’s David Muwonge describes how coffee produced under the scheme is fetching far higher prices, revealing the strong potential of geo-referencing as a marketing tool to guarantee authenticity and origin.

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Agriculture is back at the top of Africa’s development agenda, enjoying the support of governments and attracting heavy investments from private sectors. Many of smallholder farmers across Africa that are central to the agricultural transformation taking shape on the continent, however, struggle to benefit from these developments due to their dispersed, small-scale and unorganised nature. Aggregation of smallholder farmers’ needs may provide the solution, says Norbert Tuyishime of the Eastern Africa Farmers Federation (EAFF).

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Marc Ghislain Bappa Se and Nestor Ngouambe discuss opportunities for farmers’ organisations to harness data-driven agriculture to facilitate market access for smallholder farmers in Cameroon. Taking the PIDMA project as an example, they argue that supporting farmers’ organisations’ capacity to capitalise on data is crucial for farmers to efficiently and effectively tap into the ‘data value chain’ sphere.

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How can we ensure that drought is no longer an outright disaster to smallholder farmers in Africa, but instead a manageable risk? With low-cost satellite-based index insurance products that monitor climatic conditions in near real-time and automatically trigger a pay-out when conditions are below normal. This helps farmers secure necessary credit for inputs, recover faster from bad seasons and sustainably improve their livelihoods.

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A spatial data management system to profile tea farmers and map tea plots among members of the Igara Tea Growers Factory (IGTF) in Uganda has led to increased access to financial services for producers, and higher repayment rates for input loans. An immediate impact has been increased productivity and a dramatic fall-off in the practice of side-selling – so much so that other tea companies are now considering adopting the model.

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Africa is facing an escalating soil fertility crisis and without immediate interventions, the continent continues to lose over €3,5 billion per year worth of nutrients. To increase productivity whilst decreasing soil fertility decline, balanced fertilisation is essential. Farmer cooperatives using soil scanners to provide real-time fertiliser recommendations to farmers may be part of the solution. AgroCares and Agriterra present their findings from a soil sensor services pilot for farmer cooperatives in Kenya. 

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The remote arid and semi-arid Lands of Northern Kenya are dominated by pastoralist livestock production and are constantly threatened by prolonged droughts. Destocking, restocking and moving their herd to grazing areas are a key coping strategy for herders. Yet in times of stress, herders often find themselves selling stock at low prices. The challenge of accessing information serves is a key constraint for pastoralist communities to make informed decisions and manage risks.

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