Connected Agriculture: An Opportunity for Smallholder Farmers

By Chief K.Masimba Biriwasha

Smallholder farmers’ lives and livelihoods can potentially be transformed by mobile telephony and wireless technology services such as weather forecasts, agricultural extension services, commodity market information and mobile banking.

Through mobile telephony, new business models can be developed that offer greater opportunities and reduce risks for smallholders and  help to meet the challenge of feeding an estimated 9.2 billion people by 2050.

According a new analysis conducted by Accenture for Vodafone, many farming communities in emerging markets are economically excluded with little or no access to capital or banking services. The report titled, Connected Agriculture, states that smallholder farmers lack the means to trade (beyond basic barter arrangements), borrow to acquire new assets or invest to provide their businesses with sufficient resilience to withstand macro-economic changes.

Against this background, the ubuquitous mobile telephone has potential to help the poorest farmers towards greater food and income security. The greatest potential benefits can be generated by enabling mobile financial payments and mobile information provision, each delivering almost 40% of the total estimated increase in agricultural income, according to the report.

“Mobile networks are now more widely established in emerging markets than traditional fixed networks and have the potential to transform market-led agricultural practices,” said Peter Lacy, Managing Director, Accenture Sustainability Services, Europe, Africa and Latin America.

Given that global population is expected to reach more than 9 billion by 2050, requiring a 70% increase in food production above 2006 levels, there will be need for increased yields, particulalrly in emerging economies. In remote and rural regions, mobile telephony is expected to play a greater role in improving the productivity and sustainability of agricultaral systems.

According to the report, mobile telecommunications can connect farmers to markets, finance and education, making it possible to monitor resources and track products. This will unlock productivity potential while helping to manage the impacts of increased production, such as increased water use and greenhouse gas emissions.

“One third of humanity is fed through an estimated 500 million smallholder farms with less than two hectares of land. In Asia and sub-Saharan Africa the dependence is even higher, where small farms produce about 80% of the food consumed. These holdings are typically managed by families with limited technical and mechanical support and with poor access to finance. It is often difficult for them to make ends meet, let alone grow their business,” says Vittorio Colao, Vodafone Group Chief Executive Officer, in the foreword to the report.

“Looking ahead, the impact of climate change, water scarcity and increasing land scarcity will make this even more difficult. With the world’s population expected to grow by 750 million in 2020, and demand for food to increase by 70% by 2050, it is clear that something has to be done to improve the efficiency of food production and distribution.”

As access to mobile networks becomes increasingly available even in remote rural areas, the mobile phone can be used as a simple, inexpensive and convenient to not only stay in touch with friends and relatives but to also provide access to finance, improved healthcare solutions, supply chain efficiencies and increasingly automated mobility. In other words, mobile communications technology can be used as an enabler of sustainable growth particulalrly among marginalized and underprivileged populations.

“Mobile financial services can fill the banking gap felt by the poorest farmers. With access to savings or insurance services, farmers can reduce the impact of extreme weather events and invest in improving production. Meanwhile, mobile information platforms open up significant additional routes to potential markets, relaying information on prices for inputs and produce sales, as well as information on how to grow and respond to a context of climate change through the dissemination of reliable seasonal weather forecasts,” says Dame Barbara Stocking, Chief Executive Officer of Oxfam in the report. 

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