- Technologies Give Farmers in the Developing World a Way to Grow
Technologies Give Farmers in the Developing World a Way to Grow
While digitalization is transforming the sector in advanced economies, farmers in developing countries continue to face decades-old challenges
Digital technologies have transformed the agriculture sector in ways that would have been difficult to imagine even a decade ago. Sophisticated satellite technology with remote sensing mapping, robotics, artificial intelligence (AI) and other means of automation speed up productivity and output. New technologies nearly always carry a high initial price tag and require a high level of expertise to operate. As such, these tools have been historically available only for large-scale farms in developed countries.
Technology access aside, farmers in developing countries are facing some of the same challenges they faced decades ago: insufficient or unsuitable inputs, lack of technical assistance and training, lack of connectivity to marketplaces and major losses along the entire supply chain, and the lack of affordable finance. The effects of climate change exacerbate the situation, as small farm holdings are less resilient, threatening not only household incomes but broader food security issues.
According to the World Bank’s report “Harvesting Prosperity: Technology and Productivity Growth in Agriculture,” undernourishment affected more than 821 million people as of 2017. Despite these seemingly unsurmountable challenges, the collaboration and innovation of several organizations, NGOs and researchers show some promise in helping farmers from developing areas realize their agricultural potential and optimize their yields. Through a variety of apps, databases, forecasting models, and other digital platforms, today the technological barrier to entry is lower for smallholder farmers, who have greater access to tools once only available in the developed world.
Plantix is an app developed by the German-Indian start-up PEAT GmbH that could help change the way smallholder farmers in India obtain solid, up-to-date reliable field data on the ground. The app, available in 150 countries and in 18 different languages, combines artificial intelligence and the expertise of leading research institutions around the globe. Boasting a database of more than 50 million crop images, Plantix can identify from a farmer’s photo in seconds what is affecting their crop. “Our app was created as a knowledgetransfer tool accessible to small-scale farmers in developing countries – even those in remote areas,” says PEAT CFO Pierre Munzel. “Farmers can download the app free of charge. Just by using their smartphones, small-scale farmers – those cultivating on plots up to 10 hectares – have a wide range of tools on hand.”
According to PEAT, in 2021 the app reached over four million farmers, making a positive social and environmental impact through its AIbacked disease recognition technology. “[Farmers] can identify diseases, pest damage or nutrient deficiencies via a photo taken of their affected crops,” Munzel said. “They can also access a crop calendar, get weather alerts or network with other farmers. These tools ultimately enable our users to avoid crop loss, increase yields and optimize pesticide and fertilizer use. And we stay sustainable by licensing our software to other companies.”
The technology provides insights into the entire value chain of agriinputs and thus has a meaningful impact for producers, retailers, and, most importantly, smallholder farmers, bringing more transparency to the relationship between all stakeholders.
Established seven years ago by two enterprising MIT graduates from Pakistan and Thailand, Ricult – as in “agRICULTure” – launched operations in their respective countries. The team developed the Ricult Farmer App that proves smallholder farmers with free weather data, satellite imagery, pest management, and measurement tools that utilize machine learning and AI. Perhaps just as useful, farmers can use the app to secure bank loans. According to co-founder Aukrit Unahalekhaka, nearly 400,000 Thai farmers have signed up for the app.
“We have shown that our technology has increased farmers’ income by at least 50 percent as a baseline,” Unahalekhaka said in a November 2021 interview, likening Ricult’s services to that of a “robo-advisor.”
RicultX, another of the company’s products, is a digital platform that uses analytics that allow farmers to easily monitor harvests, create yield forecast models, and interact with satellite imagery maps to base decision making on prediction models.
Agricultural research institutions have played an integral role in poverty reduction and reducing under-nutrition and fighting malnutrition. These institutions are also working with digital platforms to address the many challenges within the agriculture sector.
4CAST is a tool that provides farmers with information needed to access improved seed varieties most appropriate to their region/climate. Recently launched by the International Crop Research Institute for the SemiArid Tropics (ICRISAT), the data-driven platform enables farmers to hone in on what seeds would work best for their specific climate and what types of pests and diseases are prevalent in the area. According to ICRISTAT estimates, the tool could increase total crop productivity by up to 20 percent. In addition to learning where they can purchase high quality seeds, 4CAST, which stands for Digital Tools 4 Cataloguing and Adopting Improved Seed Technologies, is open access and users can log in to add their own seed catalogues.
Researchers at ICRISAT hope that the 4CAST platform can be widely adopted across Eastern and Central Africa as a way to synergize with ongoing regional initiatives.
Since inception, the OPEC Fund has contributed more than US$2.3 million to ICRISAT’s various technical assistance programs.