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Rural farms connect to harness precision agriculture

“Connecting” rural farming to accommodate a booming global population

Connected and precision agriculture, which heavily revolves around providing low-income rural farming areas with mobile networks for access to the internet, is becoming a necessity for the stability of those areas, as well as to accommodate a growing global population.

source: RealtoReel Tanzania/Youtube
source: RealtoReel Tanzania/Youtube

2.5 billion or 86% of people in developing countries depend on agriculture for their livelihood. More than 1.5 billion of those people are “smallhold” farmers, which is defined by the United Nations as working on family farms with less than 4.9 acres of land. Many of these farmers never entered structured education systems, they lack access to information and services, and live off of the land, having very little money of their own. And still, they represent more than one-third of economic activity in the least developed countries in the world, according to Cisco.

They are also the focus of helping alleviate the Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) incredible estimate of a 70% increase of global demand for food by 2020 brought on by a population growth of 750 million in the same time frame.

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECP) and FAO Outlook for 2010 to 2019 says that we are on track to meet the food demand, but there are key hurdles that need to be overcome to meet this goal, including decreasing amounts of land that can be used for agriculture, water scarcity, climate change and food waste.

“We know that in terms of productivity, Africa’s productivity is about one sixth of what the potential is,” Michael Nkonu, mAgri program specialist at GSMA, said at the 2013 Transform Africa Summit. “So there is a huge gap between what we can produce, what we are producing, and what we need to produce to feed the growing population in Africa – what is important at this point is to see how we can increase efficiency and effectively apply technology to increase yield, also to be able to maximize the efficiency of the agriculture supply chain.”

Investment in wireless communication for rural agriculture has huge potential to impact the major development issues we face today: climate change and hunger; economic growth and gender inequity; poor health and nutrition; and environmental sustainability, according to Barbara Stocking, Chief Executive Officer at Oxfam.

The difficulties of connecting poverty-stricken areas

Unfortunately, providing information and communications technology (ICT) to smallholder farmers can be incredibly difficult. This large group represents some of the poorest people in the world who live in remote areas, and have little to no experience with technology. And for investors to want to invest in these areas there must be an impact on reducing poverty and increasing economic growth  – something that requires connecting millions of people, not just a few. To make matters worse, it costs 10 times more (20 percent of per-capita income) to implement fixed and mobile telephony, and basic internet access than in developed countries, according to Cisco.

source: Stephan Laubscher/Youtube
source: Stephan Laubscher/Youtube

A report by Vodafone, Accenture and Oxfam titled Connected Agriculture details several potential barriers and offers recommendation in providing a mobile network to rural areas. Here are a few of them:

  • Limited access to transport
    • Farmers either need access to transportation for their produce or need to trade with buyers who can manage logistics. The trading platform should enable users to see the logistics services that are available to each party.
  • Challenge of educating farmers about trading platforms
    • Trading platform providers and NGOs can work together to promote the benefits of mobile trading to farmers and develop a network of ambassadors in communities that have successfully used the service.
  • Lack of quality warehouse storage for agricultural produce
    • Governments and NGOs could help to improve infrastructure for storage. Mobile technology could enable existing warehouses to be used more efficiently by monitoring the produce stored and space available to reduce food waste and track food stocks.
  • Lack of awareness of mobile payment systems among rural poor:
    • Mobile service providers, NGOs and governments can work together to promote visibility of mobile payment systems in rural areas.
  • Investors’ perception of risk
    • Micro-finance providers can advertise their borrowers’ repayment rate and screen individual loan requests for factors likely to lead to default on loans.
  • Obtaining sufficient high-quality, relevant and local information from a large number of agents:
    • Information service providers need to recruit trusted partners to provide high-quality content and find ways to make the advice as local and relevant as possible. Companies that are sourcing information will need to build their capacity by scaling up existing business models.

A proposal to use mobile 

The services and information gained by having access to the internet makes establishing a mobile network a natural, and hugely beneficial fit for rural farming in developing countries.

Internet technology can deliver knowledge to farmers and planning tools to agribusinesses, and connects the various players in the value chain so they can conduct commerce more efficiently.

According to a Cisco report titled Connected Agriculture Developing Smart, Connected Rural Communities, ICT delivers value for value chain stakeholders through:

  • Knowledge delivery, including access to information, e-learning, and advisory services
  • Farm planning to help create efficiency in agribusiness operations
  • Quality assurance through communication of standards and capture of data
  • Procurement portals that facilitate input commerce and output trading exchanges
  • Supply chain planning to reduce cost and create visibility for logistics
  • Financial services that give greater access to capital and help reduce the cost of financial transactions
  • Community services that enable rural citizens to access basic healthcare, education, and e-government services

Vodafone put together 12 opportunities in four categories that closely align with Cisco’s vision for how rural farming could benefit from better communication services.

source: Vodafone
source: Vodafone

In 26 countries across Vodafone’s footprint, these 12 opportunities could together increase agricultural income by $138 billion in 2020, an increase of 11%, according to Vodafone. Additional benefits could include avoided greenhouse gas emissions and reduced freshwater withdrawals.

Further benefits include reducing CO2-equivalent emissions by nearly 5 mega tonnes and reducing freshwater withdrawals for agricultural irrigation by 6% in 2020. This is based on a total of around 549 million anticipated users connected to the individual services across the 12 opportunities. Also according to Vodafone’s findings:

Potential benefits in 2020 include:

  • Additional incremental income for farmers: $52 billion
  • Water savings: 6% reduction in freshwater withdrawals
  • Carbon savings: 1.9 Mt
  • Anticipated connections to mobile information services: 174 million
source: Vodafone
source: Vodafone

How to achieve precision agriculture

Mobile network providers have their work cut out for them, but the potential gains for providing services to low-income areas is enormous.

The groundwork for establishing such a network requires nations to execute on a roadmap that covers the broadband infrastructure, a rural service delivery infrastructure, and the platform of services that enables rural, agriculture-based transformation. According to the Cisco report, each of these elements depends on the following critical success factors:

  • A shared computing architecture to reduce the cost and complexity of technology
  • New business models that attract private investment for deliberately targeting those who live on less than $2 a day
  • Active collaboration among a complex global ecosystem of stakeholders to turn vision into reality

The Cisco report goes on to say that to be successful, national leaders need to orchestrate a “holistic approach” comprising three elements:

  • Connectivity to the last mile: Extending last-mile connectivity requires a framework that drives “coopetition” among telecom service providers to spur innovation and drive down costs; a program that combines rural demand generation and initial public investment to attract private investment; and collaboration among an ecosystem of partners to implement the connectivity infrastructure.
  • Telecenters: Attracting private investment for telecenter operation requires the establishment of regional services agencies that develop locally relevant service offerings and market them to rural entrepreneurs who set up and run the telecenters. Telecenter operators act as facilitators for the local community’s flow of information. The regional services agencies should be for-profit enterprises, supported by public-sector policies that offer some level of exclusivity for a region or for certain e-government services. This gives the agencies time to recoup their initial investment
  • Smart services: Telecenters provide the delivery mechanism for a wide range of solutions, including those that improve the quality of life via healthcare education, those that reduce the cost of needed services such as land registration or subsidy applications, and those that enhance agricultural productivity and commerce.
source: Vodafone
source: Vodafone

According to Vodafone’s report, a regulatory environment with both technology and the required business models will be essential in reaping the benefits of connectivity:

  • Smart logistics: using mobile devices to collect data on the location, speed and route of food distribution trucks, helping distributors improve fleet management
  • Traceability and tracking system: using mobile to record movements of items through the agricultural supply chain, from farms to shops
  • Mobile management of supplier networks: agricultural field agents visiting farms can use mobile phones to record data on farm conditions and expected yields
  • Mobile management of distribution networks: retailers can use mobile phones to keep records of sales of agricultural inputs like seeds, fertilizer and chemicals.
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