A fitness tracker for cows might have seemed like a whimsical situation comedy idea — until someone came up with one. Amsterdam-based start-up Connecterra says its dairy activity monitor saves farmers time and money and improves milk yields. Its system is one example of how digital technologies are moving into agriculture.

The question, however, is whether they will be available to a crucial segment of the global farming sector — smallholders.

As excitement grows around big data and the “internet of things” — objects that are connected to the internet to generate and transmit data — new technologies have the potential to enhance the efficiency of agriculture.

When equipped with sensors that gather and send data, for example, farm machinery can track the performance of seeds planted at different depths in a field. Drones and satellites fitted with cameras can generate images that give farmers an overview of yield patterns.

“We have already seen this in Europe and the US, where big tractors are able to use data from satellites to improve the precision of agriculture,” says Shenggen Fan, director-general of the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute. “But, more importantly, it’s some of the emerging economies like India and China where they are beginning to use big machines equipped with GPS, lasers and other technologies.”

These technologies can help farmers make adjustments to their systems throughout the growing season. For example, sensors distributed through the soil can allow farmers to increase or decrease irrigation to meet moisture levels, saving money, conserving water and increasing yields.

As these technologies collect large amounts of data, farmers can start to run analytics that help them to create predictive models to forecast the size of the season’s yield, for example.

Smart cows: fitting a dairy monitor
Smart cows: fitting a dairy monitor

Connecterra does this by tracking the behaviour and movements of cows. Its dairy monitor can help farmers increase the efficiency of grazing time per animal and predict oestrous cycles — when females are at their most fertile — more accurately, increasing the percentage of cows that become pregnant during a breeding season.

The benefits of the technology are not limited to large industrial agriculture. As the work of some non-governmental organisations (NGOs) demonstrates, technology can also improve efficiency for smallholder farmers.

For example, TechnoServe, an NGO that works globally with farmers who live on $1 to $5 a day, has used satellite imaging to revitalise South Sudan’s long-dormant coffee industry in partnership with Nestlé’s Nespresso brand.

“We used satellite imaging to count coffee trees to figure out where to group farmers and set up wet mills [where coffee beans are separated from the pulp],” explains William Warshauer, TechnoServe’s president and chief executive. “The result has been the first ever export of coffee out of Sudan to Europe.”

However, technologies such as web-enabled sensors and data analytics are alien to most of the world’s smallholder farmers. Responsible for producing up to 70 per cent of world’s food needs, many of these farmers cultivate only a few hectares of land and own just a handful of livestock. For these growers, it is services available through a less high-tech device, the mobile phone, which currently offer most promise. Using simple text message technology, farmers can receive information on the latest agricultural commodities prices, as well as advice on the best seeds to plant and fertilisers to use in different conditions.

Mr Warshauer cites Connected Farmer Solution, a mobile and web platform developed by TechnoServe, Vodafone and the United States Agency for International Development. “It lets agribusiness and smallholders exchange information but also lets the agribusiness and farmer transact over the mobile,” he explains.

Farmers can be paid for produce over the phone and the system also helps them build a credit history, so widening their access to finance.

“And the agribusiness realises huge cost savings by having access to all of these farmers at the click of a mouse,” adds Mr Warshauer.

However, given the potential for more advanced digital technologies to increase agricultural productivity, the question for policymakers, development agencies and food security specialists is how to make it possible for small-scale farmers to access these technologies.

“The full package of how it’s delivered at the farm level is still not pieced together,” says Tom Bauer, a principal investment specialist for diary and farm investment at the International Finance Corporation, part of the World Bank Group.

However, many see collaborative initiatives as one solution. “Small farmers individually are going to struggle,” says Duncan Green, senior strategic adviser at Oxfam, the aid and development charity. “But if groups of farmers can come together to access sensors and other technologies out there, they’ve got a better chance of staying competitive.”

Models have yet to be established to ensure smallholders can access the technology they need, but Mr Bauer is optimistic about smart agriculture as a means of achieving productivity gains: “Precision and smart agriculture is probably going to give us the biggest yield increases we’ve seen since hybrid and [genetically modified] seeds.”

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