Digitalisation for agriculture, an invaluable tool for the South

Sophie Carreau
03 December 2019
Ella Mazani owns a maize farm in Shurugwi, Zimbabwe. Like many other farmers, she relies on the recommendations of an agricultural advisor. And now, her mobile phone has been added to her range of farm management tools. Digitalisation for agriculture is a reality!

What exactly is digitalisation for agriculture (D4Ag)?

In general, "digitalisation for agriculture" refers to the use of information and communication technologies (ICT) in the agricultural sector, but also to the use of new digital technologies. This includes, for example, videos, radio, television, the internet, remote sensing, digital broadcasting, the use of smartphones (mobile agriculture, also known as m-agri), artificial intelligence, etc. All these technologies make it possible to access, store, transfer and manipulate information, but also analyse and make sense of it, in order to transform agriculture into a more profitable, sustainable and inclusive sector.

For example, for farmers living in remote areas, without access to a banking system, it is often difficult to make payments or receive money for their produce. Thanks to the development of new technologies, they can now rely on their mobile phones to make payments.

Social networks and messaging services (such as WhatsApp) are also playing their part. Groups are created on Facebook, through which farmers can exchange information on the latest innovations, techniques and effective practices.

This includes videos, radio, television, the internet, remote sensing, digital broadcasting, the use of smartphones (mobile agriculture, also known as m-agri), artificial intelligence, etc.

The advantages

Digitalisation has a positive impact on productivity, market access, financial inclusion and the service offering.

In effect, new technologies facilitate and accelerate price communication. They also make it possible for producer communities to group together and control a larger share of markets and the value chain. Connecting farmers in this way facilitates their access to information on input and product markets, as well as access to advisory services.

It should also be borne in mind that in sub-Saharan Africa, more and more young people are leaving their homes in the countryside in search of better jobs. They aren't particularly attracted by agriculture. However, according to the Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA), digitalising agriculture could make the profession more attractive to young people. Indeed, the CTA reports that 71% of farmers younger than 35 use these services, in particular to market their products worldwide through social networks, contact buyers without having to travel, etc. Digital innovation can therefore have a positive impact on part of the emigration problem affecting sub-Saharan Africa.

Digitalising agriculture could make the profession more attractive to young people. Digital innovation can therefore have a positive impact on part of the emigration problem affecting sub-Saharan Africa.

An African man watches a list on his smartphone.
© CTA/Muiss project

Innovation could also play a role in improving women's lives. While only 25% of women currently use technology in agriculture - despite the fact that they represent 45% of the agricultural workforce - CTA Director Michael Hailu believes that digitalisation "could have a significant impact on creating opportunities for women", provided that access is facilitated. In fact, owning and using a mobile phone is very complicated for women. Firstly because they are expensive, and secondly because women do not always have the digital skills required to use them.

Digitalisation also makes it possible to tackle pests and diseases, in particular through the use of drones. Drones make treatments much faster and cheaper, and make it possible to increase crop yields and reduce the risk of post-harvest losses. Like satellite images, drones are also used to collect data that provide better surveillance information. For example, they collect more information about the weather and can adapt more easily to climatic conditions, plan their tasks and contribute to soil preservation. For these reasons, digitalisation is seen as one of the most promising avenues for combating hunger in the world - and primarily in Africa - while preserving natural resources and biodiversity.

More generally, digitalisation for agriculture could help create hundreds of thousands of jobs in agricultural technology, IT support and processing of agricultural products. It will be useful in improving the overall quality of life of producers, and their incomes.

A drone flies over a tea fiels with tea pickers in Africa.
© CTA

Specific projects run by Belgium

Highly specific digitalisation projects are being implemented by non-governmental cooperation in the agricultural sector in Vietnam and Cambodia, supported by Belgium.

 

1. Eclosio in Cambodia

Eclosio is an NGO from the University of Liège, operating in Cambodia. Firstly, Eclosio has helped set up a platform called "Paddy Trading Platform". It is an online trading platform where farmers' cooperatives can place ads for paddy rice (husked and unprocessed rice). Registered buyers and exporters can search and filter the data according to the criteria they are looking for and even receive a notification in Khmer or English, by e-mail or SMS, each time a new bid is made.

However, it doesn't end there! One of Eclosio's partners, ISC, uses drones to plan agricultural production and estimate the possibilities for crop irrigation. The NGO is also working on a smartphone app through which it will be possible to connect producers and buyers.

 

2. VLIR-UOS in Vietnam

VLIR-UOS, which is linked to the Flemish Inter-university Council (the Dutch-speaking counterpart of the ARES), primarily operates in Vietnam. They collect data on soils, greenhouse gases and rice crops to calibrate computer models that will be used to improve soils, while reducing greenhouse gas emissions, water and fertilizers. A smartphone app will be developed to enable farmers to assess the impact of the new crop system and help raise public awareness regarding soil degradation.

 

3. Enabel in Burundi

Enabel has constructed a digital atlas of Burundi's marshes, lowlands and irrigable plains. This atlas features information on the characteristics of soils, including the hydrological characteristics, but also information on the climate and crops of the mapped area. Built as infrastructure for spatial data, this interactive and user-friendly tool has been designed to enhance knowledge of the marshes, lowlands and irrigable plains, analyse their profitability and plan their valorisation and management. To this end, Enabel uses geographical information systems (GIS). By combining satellite image data with local map data in GPS devices, they are able to provide useful information to policy makers to better assess the potential of irrigated agriculture, better plan infrastructure works or guide future investment actions in the agricultural sector.

Enabel has not stopped there and is also setting up other projects in Benin, Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali, Senegal and Tanzania. The organisation also supports other existing local initiatives, in particular via the WeHubit programme.

 

The future

Digitalisation for agriculture is consequently a highly topical issue and offers a range of solutions to the problems we are currently facing in the areas of climate, agriculture and sustainable food. However, it is above all a sector that is still in its infancy and, thanks to international support, will evolve to offer us more opportunities.

 

Also read:

 

 

What are the priorities of the Belgian Development Cooperation in the area of digitalisation?

 

1. Better use of (mega) data and information, i.e. investing in tools and policies to improve data access and use. These will be used to generate usable information that will allow development actors to make better decisions and therefore improve their impact

 

2. Digital for inclusive societies, that means using the potential of digitalisation to enable more people to benefit from an intervention as well as lowering the threshold for vulnerable groups (using Interactive Voice Response for illiterate people) to enjoy their democratic rights, equal access to basic services, participation in public life and financial and economic inclusion in society.

 

3. Digitalisation for sustainable and inclusive economic growth, that means supporting interventions that make digitalisation a lever for creating jobs

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