ICTs are transforming the lives of family farmers, giving them better access to information, markets, services and inputs, and making them more resilient to external shocks.
ICTs are helping millions of developing countries gain better access to information, tools and technology that can transform their livelihoods. Indeed, ICTs help family farmers sell and market their produce, boost their ability to cope with dwindling access to water, land and soil nutrients, and deal with the extreme climate events, pests and diseases that affect their crops. If more of these ICT solutions are tailored to the needs of smallholder family farmers and put within their reach – especially the women farmers who form the bulk of this group – then their agriculture can rapidly move from being a subsistence activity to a successful and sustainable business.
Agriculture is becoming more market oriented globally. Individual family farmers, however, are finding it increasingly difficult to participate in markets – not only in national and international markets, but even in local ones. Smallholder farmers have small amounts of farm produce to market but often do not have access to systems of communication, finance and transport. If they could somehow aggregate their produce and collectively synchronise their production and marketing systems, then they would be able to enter these markets more easily as a collective.
ICTs can help smallholder farmers improve their production systems so they can fetch better prices, avoid gluts and have the critical mass to grow market-led crops. Conventionally, this is done by cooperatives and farmer organisations, which bring together farmers. These organisations help reduce weaknesses in the value chain. In most developing countries, however, these organisations are weak and often face constraints in planning and monitoring production systems and setting up logistics for an efficient marketing system.
Some cooperatives have tried to overcome these constraints by taking control of the land of participating farmers. This approach, however, diminishes the opportunity for family farmers to participate in the decision-making processes that impact their livelihoods, and so ultimately this approach has failed.
ICTs now provide the potential to overcome these constraints. They can help family farmers coordinate their planning and monitoring of production and marketing systems by virtually aggregating data, without cooperatives having to take over the land or do the decision making for their farms. Access to credit, financial and insurance services for family farmers has been a major constraint to improving their farming and incomes. With the increasing availability of mobile phones and the internet, smallholder farmers can now access financial services much more easily.
ICTs also allow family farmers to see their farm processes from many different viewpoints, and this enables them to make more sound economic and environmental decisions. Access to ICTs and information also increases their technological literacy. A farmers’ organisation that uses ICTs can now support individual farmers by suggesting what crops they should grow, and where, when and how to market them with these ICT-run systems. These systems can also help farmers organise and plan inputs. Connectivity also gives smallholders easy access to knowledge-based services that help farmers to solve farming problems.
Precision technology and land rights
Cloud-based data, application services and the wide availability of smartphones and ‘phablets’ have made precision technology – such as mapping systems with high resolution and three-dimensional maps – more widely available to these farmers. Once the privilege of large farms, smallholders can now use these tools too to measure soil moisture and nutrients, for example, or environmental carbon dioxide.
The sensors used to make these measurements can be linked to GPS systems and incorporated into sensor networks that can help farmers monitor the well-being of their crops at a micro level. The use of drones and digital cameras are enabling farmers to use very low-cost remote sensing to monitor their crops. With close monitoring, farmers can use water and soil nutrients more effectively and sustainably. This, in turn, improves the resilience of their farming system.
Many smallholder farmers have difficulty securing their rights to land and other resources. Many family farms have tenancy agreements. But they keep poor records of allotment, ownership and tenancy. Cadastral surveys containing maps and records can now be managed and accessed at a lower cost using geographical information systems in the public domain. As a result, farmers can obtain records for their farms and use them to get mortgages, bank loans and compensation. When records become available in the public domain, farmers’ rights to land and other resources become more secure.
A new paradigm for farming
Like society in general, ICTs are ushering in a new paradigm for farming and agriculture. The flow and use of information and knowledge in this paradigm resembles that of a network and therefore calls for new forms of collaboration and partnership.
ICTs have huge potential to provide knowledge-based services to farmers and others earning their livelihoods in activities related to agriculture, such as agri-businesses, agro-industries and financial services. In the near future, these services will be provided largely by micro, small and medium enterprises to farmers in villages and entrepreneurs who operate in local, national and even international markets.
Governments and the public sector in most countries are now the major generators, managers and disseminators of organised data and information related to agriculture. Governments are also responsible for agricultural development, research, innovation and extension. New forms of collaboration and partnerships are now needed between the public and private sectors to adapt to changing circumstances in the agricultural sector – changes in which governments and the public sector provide data and information, while the private sector provides the knowledge services.
Much of the data in the future will be generated and shared by communities. For farming this will occur through agricultural communities that contribute to commodity chains in terms of input, processing, marketing and consumption. Fields and farms, and all the related processes, will generate huge sets of data – ‘big’ data that will need to be processed instantaneously.
Individual farmers are being given the ability to create and manage sophisticated information thanks to low-cost connectivity, massive computing power accessible through cloud computing with shareable tools, applications and intelligently linked content. This ‘democratisation’ of science will draw farmers into agricultural research, innovation and development processes. This could transform the entire structure of agricultural research and innovation systems, especially for family farmers, whose specific needs seem to have been ignored by current technological innovations.
There are now a large number of ICTs within reach of family farmers that would help them to improve their farming practices. Technological trends indicate that many more innovations are in the making as well. However, their availability is still too widely dispersed. Individual technologies and tools are not integrated yet in ways that would help smallholder family farmers improve their farming practices.
For example, there are applications that enable farmers to do online banking but which are not linked to farmers’ needs, such as credits through mortgages and crop insurance. To make ICTs even more widely available, institutions, their policies, the governance of information flows and the way they organise their work all need to undergo major transformation.
This new paradigm calls for new policies, and new regulatory mechanisms and laws. Old institutions need to be revamped; new institutions and organisations need to be established; and government work processes need to be restructured. The main concern of governments should be to provide not only data and information but also the infrastructure and investment that promote new capacities and the integration of information systems and services.