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Although there is a rapid proliferation of digital tools in the agri-food sector, their great potential for climate-smart farming has not been fully realized yet. At the ICTforAg conference in March 2022, voices from the international digital agriculture community exchanged on the challenges and opportunities associated with the next green revolution.
Today, more than half the world’s population is connected to the internet. Over 90 percent of them use mobile phones to connect digitally. Over the last decade, the widespread availability of mobile phones and access to mobile internet has been a game-changer in digital inclusion. Digital technologies are increasingly used across every sector of the economy, including health, finance, education, infrastructure, e-commerce, and retail.
The agricultural sector, too, has witnessed a rise in the adoption of digital technologies across various activities. Some of the use cases where technology is being successfully applied in agriculture include drones and GPS mapping. These can provide customised advisories on the use of fertilizers and pesticides; remote sensors to verify crop insurance claims; digital platforms to provide direct market linkages between farmers and consumers; and digital financial services for farmers. These solutions have the potential to address some of the most pressing issues faced by the sector, such as low productivity and yields, climate-change-related vulnerabilities, lack of access to credit, and weak market linkages.
Despite these technological developments in the agricultural sector, the adaptation of digital solutions continues to remain low amongst vulnerable and marginalized populations in low- and middle income countries (LMICs). According to a recent GSMA (‘Global System for Mobile Applications’) report based on current trends, 40 percent of the population in LMICs will still be offline by 2025. Despite a larger number of people being aware of mobile internet, digital literacy is perceived to be the strongest barrier to adopt digital technologies, especially for women and youth. Max Cuvellier’s (Head of Mobile for Development at GSMA) keynote speech illustrated the remaining challenges regarding access to mobile phones, despite considerable advances having been made over recent years.
During the two-day virtual conference from March 9th to 10th 2022, over 3700 registered participants from over 102 countries discussed not only the challenges the digital agriculture community faces, but also showcased inspiring solutions. Participants came from a diverse range of sectors from the private to the public, from academia to government institutions and farmers representations, with large shares of young, female, African and Asian attendees.
The participants shaped a general consensus that increased advancement of digital technologies – from mobile-based to satellite data, from the Internet of Things (IoT) to Artificial Intelligence – provide opportunities never seen before. In order to ensure that these technologies do not further increase the digital divide, a large focus of all ecosystem stakeholders should be on understanding and addressing the barriers of adoption and use of digital agricultural solutions. Supported by the GIZ ‘Fund for the Promotion of Innovation in Agriculture’ (i4Ag), the AgriPath consortium organized a session specifically trained on this aspect. The research project provides farmers and extension services with tailored digital solutions for sustainable agricultural practices. What makes it interesting is that the focus is not just on the technical solution, but places great emphasis on human-centred design and behaviour change to better understand intra-household decision-making and norms around gender equality, in order to support women in the adaption of digital solutions.
Another big topic at the conference was data. Data analysis is a growing trend across industries, making it a critical part of improving business operations and decision-making. Myriad forms of data are enabling businesses to understand and anticipate customer needs, get insights into new geographies and customer segments, optimize resources, and make better decisions. The agriculture sector is no different when it comes to the usage of data analytics. The sector has witnessed an increased use of digital solutions such as precision agriculture, blockchain technology, and IoT to capture, facilitate, analyse, and enable decision-making on various activities throughout the supply chain. These solutions are driving a shift towards improved crop yields, climate change mitigation, efficiency increases in resource utilization, and aligned agricultural supply and demand.
Yet challenges remain related to data privacy and ownership - especially for smallholders.
There is an immediate need to design frameworks or processes for data governance and ownership that put farmers' needs at the centre.
Together with the Dalberg Data Insights enterprise, i4Ag recently finalized a study on data sovereignty and how to improve control over data for smallholder farmers, presented during an interactive session at the conference. Putting in place policies around governance and inclusion will also drive the adaptation of innovative and farmer-friendly solutions for data analytics in the agriculture sector. One example for such improved analytics is ‘Croppie’, another project supported by the i4Ag fund which gives farmers access to yield predictions using AI, smartphone pictures and gamification. Such improved analytics have the potential to thereby improve livelihoods and increase smallholders’ income. Simultaneously, service providers and other agriculture stakeholders will benefit through creating a fair and competitive market for service delivery.
Climate change constituted another highly relevant and timely topic addressed at the conference. Globally, many agricultural technologies (‘agtechs’) are now working across the three pillars of climate-smart agriculture (CSA) increased productivity and income, enhanced resilience, and reduced emissions. Technological solutions offered by agtechs may have the potential to become highly effective, scalable, and sustainable for building the climate resilience of smallholder farmers. Furthermore, enhancing information flows, such interventions could help farmers prepare for climate and price volatility.
The closing panel provided an outlook on Agriculture 4.0, or the next (digital) agricultural revolution. Overall, it can be concluded that Agriculture 4.0 is on the rise and digital technologies have already shown great promise providing farmers with information, extension and advisory services, enabling more efficient financial services, and facilitating connections between buyers and sellers. Our mission should now be to use the momentum and shape this development in such a way that all stakeholders can participate equally in the digital transformation. We can achieve this goal primarily through increased collaboration between all stakeholders. This includes governmental institutions, NGOs, the private sector, academia and, above all, smallholders and their organizations themselves.
There is a great need for collaboration that goes hand-in-hand with the private sector as a driver for innovation.
We should cooperate with government institutions to ensure that policy and regulation create a conductive environment for such innovations, not least to spread their benefits fairly.
It is also vital that we collaborate with the farmers’ cooperatives and extension agents, who work directly with and for the farmers. We need to work with NGOs and civil society partners who can bring in holistic views of the challenges ahead, ensuring digital solutions are accessible and inclusive – especially for women.
The coherent involvement of agricultural technologies’ actual users, especially smallholders, is crucial in order to properly understand their needs and to verify the feasibility and scalability of digital solutions. Thus, Agriculture 4.0 is not just about what is technologically possible- it is about the right framework conditions, the skills involved and ultimately about those people who will use and benefit from such digital solutions.
The 2022 conference was implemented by DAI and Intellecap, and sponsored by Feed the Future and the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) through the GIZ Fund for the Promotion of Innovation in Agriculture (i4Ag). Further information on funding opportunities for innovative projects across the agri-food sector on the ‘innovation4ag' website.