The digitised farmyard

Time for visions and to take stock: This is how a smallholder farmyard could look today in Africa – with the help of smartphones, electricity and the Internet.


On the interactive graphic you will find innovations identified by numbers. Click on it to learn more.


Jan Rübel

Jan Rübel is author at Zeitenspiegel Reportagen, a columnist at Yahoo and writes for national newspapers and magazines. He studied History and Middle Eastern Studies.


As a magic word on its own, digitisation works very well. It sounds like a promise in many speeches and strategy papers – Africa's agriculture is dialling into the global cloud of agricultural technologies and is changing rapidly.


This magic word extends in different directions. Some see in digitisation an explosion in one fell swoop that will solve all the problems. Others see in it another aspect of injustice and its intensification.


It is clear here that digitisation is already having a considerable impact on the African agriculture, but is not being turned upside down from the ground up. Two extremes describe this phenomenon. According to Disrupt Africa, the agricultural sector in African countries is experiencing the biggest growth in terms of investment in start-ups, that says something about the rate of this transformation. Secondly, these figures tell us just how big agriculture per se is for the economy – and that these are not agricultural businesses or giant capital-driven companies but small-scale ventures run by families who mostly eat what they produce. For farmers who work the land with the strength in their hands and are hardly deemed embedded in the money flow, the vision of a digitised farmyard is bold. But the trend towards it exists and is irreversible. It will just not happen overnight.


The World Bank has set a triple divide, that runs along markings rural, gender and also digital, so passes right through the rural areas of Africa where agriculture plays a prominent role. Digitisation not only needs the set-up of infrastructure and power/mobile networks to cover large areas and be accessible for all, it also needs a regulatory framework, protection of data and consumers, and the targeted strengthening of the standing of women there; otherwise this path, that has already experienced many a jolt, could really show dystopian traits.


So what is already possible? What might a smallholder farmyard look like in Africa when smartphones, electricity and the Internet are available in the house , and there is a connection to a network with technical agricultural aids of a digital nature, such as those from development organisations? How is digitisation impacting its businesses today, directly and indirectly over the value-added chain? Perhaps like this:


1: With solar power

To be able to benefit from the virtues of digitisation, framework conditions must first be put into place. This means connecting those living in rural areas to power and Internet networks.  Berlin-based start-up Mobilsol is offering in East Africa compact solar systems that produce enough energy to cover the basic requirements of a family – for lights, mobiles and radios. Larger versions are able to operate fridges and machines. The new power source is paid for using mobile money transfers – enabling even households in structurally remote regions to connect to the power network.


To reach the most remote of places – this is also what the parent company of Google, Alphabet Inc., wants. In their "Loon" project, the aim is to use helium balloons to connect isolated rural communities to the Internet. At a height of 12 km, each balloon is to provide Internet access to an area of 5,000 square kilometres. Made of polyethylene, the balloons will run on solar power and move with the wind for months after initial start-up.


The sprinkler kits from Kenyan company SunCulture also run on solar power. The integrated pump pumps water from a maximum depth of 17 metres and can spray 3,000 litres of water in one hour on the surrounding fields.


2: Flying help

The land is monitored and surveyed by drones – this enables agricultural crop land to be determined accurately and areas to be monitored for illegal acquisition. If a drone detects land grabbing, it can be reported to a central platform. Funja, a start-up in Tanzania, not only surveys cropland, it also makes it easier for smallholders to access credit. Because without documented proof of land usage rights, they can only rarely apply to banks for credit to purchase seeds or fertilisers. Funja determines land rights using drones and enters them into a kind of digital land register. This information is then available to banks on an online platform.


The Sentinel-2A and Sentinel-2B satellites are circling the earth constantly on behalf of the European Space Agency. They use special, high-resolution cameras to record the states of vegetation and land surfaces. It is therefore possible to determine and differentiate between plant species, as well as their chlorophyll and leaf water content, and so their state of health. This in turn enables conclusions to be drawn on the growth of plants and permits harvest forecasts to be improved. With Internet access, farmers are now able to access this information for free in most cases.


3: Speaking fields

Data collected by the satellites on leaf sizes of crop plants, soil moisture and vegetation density is combined with topographical data and weather information, thus enabling the characteristic productivity of locations to be determined. This facilitates the calculation in real-time of current biomass and yields.


Zenvus, a Nigerian precision farming start-up, uses a special camera stuck in the ground to measure and analyse soil data, such as temperature, nutrients and vegetative health. This helps farmers to use the right fertilisers and to irrigate their farms the best way. The process improves the productivity of businesses and reduces water and fertiliser usage.


4: Strong together

In communities, shared knowledge is one of the most important digitisation tools for African smallholders. On numerous platforms, farmers are able to network together, share information and offer their goods. Farmboek for example is a platform aiming to provide farmers the basics about agriculture. It offers useful information on things like planting fields, pest control, fertilising different plant species, and information on animal welfare and the correct food for animals. Farmboek also makes available to its users purchase recommendations for tractors, and contact details for local dealers of agricultural equipment. It also has a weather forecasting tool, that was developed by Syngenta and provides farmers with special weather information to enable farms to operate as precisely as possible.


Platforms such as Labaroun Kassoua in Niger and TwigaFoods in Kenya make it easier for farmers to sell their goods on local markets with high yields. They provide information on the current market values of goods on offer and compare markets to see which one currently yields the most profit for the goods sold.


5: Pocket professional

A number of apps are now aiding smallholders with Internet access in their daily work. Scottish tech company Conjengo has developed VetAfrica in collaboration with Microsoft. The app makes available to experienced farmers and vets diagnoses of animal diseases, and even provides recommendations for suitable medication. To assist owners of farm animals in overcoming their daily challenges, the app helps them to enter the relevant animal details. In light of the lack of vets in Ghana, CowTribe provides tips on vaccinations and treating animal diseases. The Breeding Wheel app enables its users to record personalised animal data and visualises it in the form of a wheel. To receive remote help, animal owners can share the individual records between different devices, together with a photo of the cow in question for example.


The Esoko app helps NGOs, companies, governments and farmers to network with each other. It is currently available in nine countries. The features include automatic and personalised price alarms, purchase and sales offers, and contact profiles via SMS. Esoko also provides farmers and potential investors with content, marketing, advice and monitoring services. Crop-Kenya sends text messages to provide farmers with weather forecasts and location-specific growing tips.


6: In the fast lane

Mechanisation means a lot of the workload is taken off farmers. But is it really necessary for every smallholder farm to buy its own expensive machinery?


The TroTro Tractor and Hello Tractor apps enable farmers to put together and rent out their very own range of vehicles. This means a tractor can serve a whole community, not just one farmer. In the future, GPS could even be used by agricultural machines so they can keep to the right tracks on the field by themselves. When used accurately, moving up and down tracks repeatedly is prevented and yields are increased. The movement data of machines can be analysed automatically, meaning the required time can be calculated when machines are rented out.  This way, rental services can be optimised and the deployment of multiple machines can be coordinated perfectly.


7: Mobile finances

Traditionally, many smallholders in rural regions can only access banks and credit with difficulty. But there is also a way without banks. FarmDrive, a Kenyan company, connects smallholders having inadequate provision to credit, and helps financial institutions broaden their portfolio of agricultural credit at affordable prices. Other platforms such as FarmDrive in Kenya prepare the creditworthiness for farmers, and so simplify the financing of investments that will increase yields and so quality of life in the long term. Kenyan start-up M-Farm and AgroSpaces in Cameroon provide pricing information to remove the price asymmetries between farmers and buyers, and enable farmers to earn more. The life of rural populations is generally simplified with mobile money transfers - or purchases, sales and transfers transacted using pre-paid mobile credit.

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