Information and Communications Technology (ICT) Solutions for Smallholder Agriculture
(Image credit: Beecham Research)
By Ifeanyi Charles Okoli
Published date: 14th February 2023
The human population is rising at an increasing rate, especially in the developing countries of the global south. The United Nations (2019) estimated that there will be 8.5 billion inhabitants on the Earth in 2030, and rising to 9.7 billion by 2050. A major global challenge is the feeding and provision of other livelihood resources to this rising population in the coming years. This challenge is particularly being felt in the agricultural industry because of diminishing farmlands as a result of several contending anthropogenic activities. Agriculture has remained an important industry in human history because it is responsible for the production of indispensable resources such as food, medicine, energy, and fiber. Recent estimates by FAO (2020) however suggest that about 84 percent of the farmers in the low- and lower-middle-income countries in the global south are smallholdings that normally cultivate less than 2 hectares of land for food and livelihood for poor families. Small-scale (family or homestead) farming is also an important characteristic of agriculture in the high and middle-income countries in the global north.
Over time, technological innovations have shaped agriculture, especially those that have been used to increase agricultural production in line with local and global needs. From the creation of the plow and the recent adoption of information and communication technology (ICT) solutions-driven precision farming, humans have employed technologies to make farming more efficient and productive. The rising global population has particularly engendered a drastic transformation of agriculture over the past 40 years through technological advancements in the global north and some middle-income countries. The continuous revolution in agricultural technologies in these countries has resulted in an increase in employment, efficiency in the production of food, and savings in production costs and time to the benefit of farmers and investors. Although according to Boloh and Cartmell-Thorp, 80 percent of the food in Africa is still produced by smallholder farmers and characterized by low productivity, digital technologies, and innovations are gradually penetrating the sector, indicating a new agricultural revolution in the continent. Several other studies on ICT solutions for agriculture, especially the reports by Finger and colleagues have predicted that the adoption of smart farming solutions could narrow the productivity gap between developing and industrial countries, thereby increasing competition and raising the standard of living in these countries. A study report by CTA and Dalberg Advisors showed that there are nearly 400 ICT or digital solutions with 33 million smallholder farmers registered across sub-Saharan Africa, and grown at an annual rate of about 45 percent since 2012. Boloh and Cartmell-Thorp also report that more than 90 percent of the market for digital services that support African smallholder farmers remains untapped, with a turnover of an estimated €127 million out of a total potential market of €2.3 billion.
ICT Tools and their Uses in Agriculture
Agricultural technologies are exploited by farmers in several ways such as precision forecasting, data-driven decision-making, market access, etc, resulting in positive impacts on the farmers and the consumer. Several ICT tools ranging from cutting-edge Internet-based technologies and sensing tools to more traditional technologies such as radio, telephones, mobile phones, television, and satellites are available to farmers for use in their agricultural practices (Figure 1). Some of these technologies such as radio, telephones, mobile phones, television, and satellites have been around for a much longer time and could therefore be regarded as conventional technologies. The five major ways technology has revolutionized agriculture in recent times include;
Ø The internet (online resources) has offered farmers unprecedented access to valuable resources and tools to make farming easier.
Ø Global Positioning System (GPS) has provided the farmer with precise location information, which is integrated with farm machinery operations to maximize their efficiency.
Ø Sensors are being used by farmers to manipulate crops at a micro level, reduce environmental impact, and conserve resources, by monitoring all stages of the farming process from soil health, to the use of irrigation water to the humidity level in the silos.
Ø Mobile devices with their mobile applications (apps) have also significantly impacted various spheres of agriculture. Farmers have increasing access to several mobile apps which are helping them to collect and manage important information needed for their farm operations.
Ø Smart farming involves the implementation of contemporary information and communication technologies (ICT) in agriculture, resulting in precision agriculture or what has been referred to as the Third Green Revolution. It involves the joint application of ICT solutions such as the Internet of Things (IoT), GPS, robotics, sensors and actuators, big data, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), precision equipment, etc in the farming processes. Thus, smart farming provides farmers with enormous potential for improving productivity through the use of field-generated data.
Fig. 1: ICT tools for agriculture (Source: www.fao.org/in-action/e-agriculture-strategy-guide/en/)
Role of ICT in Agriculture
Although several definitions for smart farming, have been put forward, the central elements of these definitions remain similar and include a combination of big data analytics and information communication technologies (ICT) such as the Internet of Things (IoT) and Edge and cloud computing, GIS technology, robotics, satellite imaging, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) and algorithms to make the farming practices innovative and efficient. Indeed, the smart farming concept also includes frameworks for establishing optimal farm processes, networking on-farm systems, monitoring the distribution of farm products, and marketing food commodities. Recent reports by Idoje and colleagues have shown that smart farming solutions apply ICT to increase the economic yield of crops and livestock, and also to optimize farming inputs and processes that lend to improvements in the transportation, distribution, and retail phases of the food supply chain. These technologies according to O'Shaughnessy and colleagues rely on big data analytics and include cyber systems that provide monitoring, smart predictions, decision support, automated control, and future planning. Other components of smart farming include innovations that help to optimize the nutrient application to the soil, pesticide uses, and water for irrigation, leading to improvements in production.
Several regional and international organizations such as the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations have promoted ICT solutions as a subset of the larger Agricultural Technology field that offers strong potential for driving economic growth, raising incomes, and improving livelihoods among rural communities, through increased efficiency of agricultural production and value chain development. ICT-driven solutions are being applied to diverse agricultural problems ranging from climate change, pests, and disease control to poor market access across several sectors. For example, figure 2 highlights how an ICT-based platform could serve several sectors, such as agriculture, health, and transportation by offering information to consumers on products and quality, ensuring timely transportation of products to market, and empowering farmers through stronger linkages between small-scale producers and markets.
Fig. 2: Role of ICT in agriculture (Source: www.fao.org/in-action/e-agriculture-strategy-guide/en/)
These roles could the summarized into five major services as shown in figure 3 and include information sharing, information analytics, access to markets, access to finance, and tracking and traceability. According to Wamba and Queiroz, the two major ICT solutions that will increasingly impact agriculture in many ways are the Internet of Things (IoT) and Artificial Intelligence (AI). This new form of agriculture, requires the collection of enormous quantities of data, with the assurance of integrity and data transparency, therefore constituting a major problem for the entire agricultural chain.
Fig. 3: The major services provided by ICT for agriculture (Source: www.feedthefuture.gov)
Most ICT solutions do not however address the issue of bias in the collection and use of data. For example, the collection and use of data may be influenced by predetermined interests, such as stakeholder preferences in a multi-criteria decision which may be influenced by the organizations they represent or organizations may exhibit bias on issues related to their interests. Such bias could be avoided by distributing the power to a larger number of agents who take turns recording information on the process of generating, transacting, and consuming a product or service in a ledger, which is collectively managed by all the participating agents through a peer-to-peer network (Blockchain). Blockchain technology has been studied and presented as a major innovation for solving the problems related to data transparency in agriculture. It generally refers to a secured and shared information storage technology devoid of centralized control.
Applications of the Internet of Things (IoT) in Agriculture
Farmers in different regions of the world are routinely consulting data to address essential agricultural variables such as soil, water, and weather dynamics. Access to the advanced digital tools that would help to turn these data into valuable, actionable insights remains a major constraint, especially in the less-developed regions where most of the farm work is manual, involving little or no advanced connectivity or equipment. The major obstacles to data access in these regions include a lack of the necessary connectivity infrastructure, and slow deployment of digital tools by farmers because of a lack of proven impact. Goedde and colleagues reported that even in advanced countries like the USA, only about 25 percent of farms currently use connected equipment or devices to access data. The technologies when available are usually not state-of-the-art and run on 2G or 3G networks or very low-band IoT networks. Most farmers, therefore, lack the appropriate Internet network access that can support real-time data transfer, which is essential to unlocking the value of more advanced and complex use cases.
The Internet of Things refers to smart devices that are capable of transferring information on a network. It is also referred to as the Internet of Everything (IoE) and has been defined as an ecosystem of interrelated computing devices, digital machines, and objects that can transfer data to each other in real time, with minimum human interference. According to Srivastava, these devices may include domestic appliances such as coffee makers, washing machines, music systems, TVs, wearables, and other electronic devices that can communicate with each other. The major components of the IoT ecosystem are sensors/devices that pick up all the minute details from an environment; connectivity such as Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, WAN, cellular network, etc; data processing which should be reliably and fast enough to take immediate actions; and user interface usually in the form of a notification or an alert sound sent to the IoT mobile apps. Saxena reported that in 2020 there were 31 billion IoT devices in the world, while many are still emerging and making their way to different industries.
There are several ways in which IoT is transforming agriculture, especially in indoor farming, livestock management, aquaculture, food processing, and distribution. These have been enumerated by Saxena in a recent write-up to include;
Ø Robotics such as agribots could solve the problems of labor shortage and UAVs which can be deployed to remove weeds, apply agrochemicals and even determine soil and crop health.
Ø On-field Navigation: With aid of machine learning, GPS, and IoT, farmers can remotely control farming equipment such as tractors, rotavators, and a host of other agricultural machinery with a smartphone, thus making the farming activities less laborious.
Ø Automated crop harvesting: With the aid of IoT technology, farmers could grow premium crops at scale, while harvesting robots could be trained to harvest the right crops at the right time.
Ø Remote sensing: Farmers can install on-field sensors which are designed to detect discrepancies in weather conditions, crop nutrition, soil pH, etc, and therefore offer advanced Intel and warnings to farmers to prepare for exigencies.
Ø Drones: This self-guiding technology makes use of GPS, image processing, infrared cameras, and ground control systems to predict crop yields, diagnose pest infestation, precision fertigation, and field supervision.
As internet connectivity increasingly improves in developing countries, these tools will be deployed by farmers to enable new capabilities in agriculture. The McKinsey Center on Advanced Connectivity and Agriculture Practice has envisioned newer IoT networks such as the Massive Internet of Things (MIoT) that operate on low-power networks and cheaper sensors. This will make the technology more affordable, thus enabling its use in the irrigation of field crops, monitoring of large herds of livestock, and tracking of the use and performance of remote buildings and large fleets of machinery. Again, ultra-low latency and improved stability of connections will foster confidence in farmers to run applications that demand absolute reliability and responsiveness, such as operating autonomous machinery and drones.
Blockchain Technology for Agriculture
Blockchain technology is based on a decentralized and distributed database or ledger of transactions and events, functioning as an ascending one-way list of records nominated as blocks, with each block having a link to previous blocks created using cryptographic functions and timestamps. It has emerged as a digital technology in FinTech that allows ubiquitous financial transactions among distributed untrusted parties, without the need for intermediaries such as banks. It gained popularity alongside cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin. Blockchain technology is part of industry 4.0, which encompasses automation and data exchange in production processes. Industry 4.0 integrates the internet of things (IoT), cyber-physical systems, cognitive computing, and cloud computing.
The major challenges to agriculture as a business have been poor inventory management, lack of fair pricing, inefficient supply chain, and lack of transparency. In developing countries in particular, the food supply chain faces several challenges, such as the need for confidence among stakeholders which often correlated with their credibility and the traceability required by the end-users, and the difficulty of managing risks, delays, or disruptions which often occur as a result of insufficient or lack of information. Several authors including Awan and colleagues have shown that transparency and traceability are the major benefits that blockchain technology provides to the agricultural sector since it makes it possible to track the supply chain of a product from the farm to the final consumer. The technology eliminates the centralized and monopolistic system and introduces a decentralized model with information sharing at the value chain level. The distributed nature of blockchain technology also allows it to increase trust and transparency in systems while lowering costs, increasing efficiency, and enabling broader uptake.
The role of blockchain technology and its applicability to different challenges in agricultural value chains, including traceability, food safety, poverty, food insecurity, and financial inclusion has been explored in several studies. Combinations of blockchain with IoT, smart technology, and sensors can help ensure food safety and quality, trace food origins and optimize agricultural production. Integration of IoT with blockchain results in the overall visibility of food products across the supply chain, with the major advantage of the food supply chain being real-time monitoring and sensing of original food items from the origin, thereby enabling the identification of major bottlenecks. Other potential uses of blockchain technology, such as food safety and provenance, digital identification of livestock, land registry processes, creation of autonomous greenhouse environment, decentralized big data and knowledge, data related to climate, weather, and agricultural production, and work on protection against intellectual property theft have been reported.
Blockchain technology for agricultural finance: Indeed, the technology has the potential to positively disrupt the agriculture industry by providing autonomous financial settlement, audit, and reconciliation mechanisms with greater transparency thereby preventing fraud. Blockchain technology could therefore be used to create secure payments and transaction platforms in agribusiness. Patel and colleagues studied a blockchain-based farmer’s credit scheme called KRanTi in India, which was designed to improve the access of small and marginal farmers to credit. Patel and Shrimali also studied a blockchain-based data harvesting solution for the agriculture sector called AgriOnBlock in India. The technology enables farmers to securely collect and store data related to their crops and livestock and access relevant information and services from government and private sector partners. The technology also allows the creation of digital identities for individual farmers, which can be used to access financial services and other benefits. Putri and colleagues explored the potential of using blockchain technology to create a more efficient and transparent system in the agricultural supply chain through the use of smart contracts to share information and coordinate activities more effectively among the various actors in the supply chain.
Blockchain technology for agricultural supply chain management: Blockchain technology can be used effectively to create a secure, transparent, and efficient agriculture and food supply chain by keeping track of the origins and movements of products. Krithika defined traceability as the capability to track the life cycle, movement, or location of an item or product through its supply chain (Figure 4). In a supply chain management system built on blockchain technology, traceability is achieved through the use of digital signatures and tamperproof timestamps. Products are allotted unique digital identifiers, and each time the product changes hands, a new digital signature and timestamp are added to the blockchain, thus creating an immutable record of the product’s journey through the supply chain, which can be used to track its location and verify its authenticity. Blockchain-based food traceability enables the tracking of food items throughout the supply chain, from farm to table, and therefore provides a transparent and secure system of tracking the provenance of food items to ensure food safety and quality.
Fig. 4: Blockchain technology traceability from farm to table (Source: Anh and Nghiep, 2022)
Katsikouli and coworkers studied the potential benefits of using blockchain technology to manage food supply chains and reported that it could help to reduce the costs associated with traditional supply chain management systems and provide new opportunities for data-driven decision-making. Nayal and colleagues studied the impact of transparency and traceability on reducing transaction costs and improving data quality and security to support sustainable blockchain initiatives. Cao and colleagues on the other hand proposed a traceability and reconciliation scheme that would improve consumer confidence in the safety and quality of beef products and also increase transparency and traceability throughout the supply chain. Other studies have identified four levels for the blockchain maturity model basic, intermediate, advanced, and expert, with each level involving a set of capabilities.
Blockchain technology for livestock management: Blockchain technology has also been used in livestock management to improve the accuracy and efficiency of the stock-management processes by automating the tracking and recording of transactions, ensuring the accuracy of stock data, and for transparency and traceability of products. A USA study found that consumers are willing to pay a premium for beef sourced through a blockchain traceability system, although the willingness was highest among those who valued transparency and food safety and lowest among those who were concerned about privacy. Hang and colleagues proposed a blockchain-based platform for fish farming that provides farmers with secure and tamperproof storage of large agricultural data and demonstrated the usability and exceptional benefits of the system. Blockchain technology can also be of benefit in animal and animal product traceability. For example, a blockchain-based system (RFID tags) was used by Huynh and Nguyen to track the movement of poultry products throughout the supply chain from farm to table, thus increasing transparency and traceability in the food supply chain and keeping the consumer informed of the choices they are making in purchasing a product.
Limitations, and challenges, to the application of blockchain in agriculture: Other applications of blockchain technology in agriculture that have been researched include industrialization and commercialization, as well as applications in production, management, and governance. There are however several limitations, and challenges, to the application of blockchain technology in agriculture. The diversity and complexity of the sector are such that several players including farmers, processors, distributors, retailers, and consumers having different interests and needs are involved and therefore it is always difficult to reach a consensus. Again, the structure of the industry requires that large volumes of data on several variables such as weather, soil, crop, and market dynamics have to be gathered and processed before informed decisions can be made. Furthermore, because the sector is acutely time-sensitive, decisions have to be made without delay to maximally exploit opportunities. Climatic factors such as droughts, floods, and pest infestation may also pose a serious challenge to the adequate deployment of blockchain technology in the industry.
Again, the benefits of blockchain technology are dependent on a network effect that may entail high upfront costs to achieve. This initial high cost has hindered its adoption by small-scale operators. Many investors prefer digital solutions over ICT solutions that deal with physical inputs or products. Therefore, enabling access to finance for smallholder farmers can serve as a bridge between digital and physical service provision. Financial technologies however remain key areas of growth for agricultural ICT solutions in developing countries.
Constraint to the Adoption of ICT Solutions in Agriculture
Several constraints to the adoption of ICT solutions by smallholder farmers have been reported, with the five major ones being the small size of most farms, high cost of adoption, technology-related difficulties, lack of professional support, and lack of supporting policy. Poor accessibility, unreliable infrastructures for data transmission and collection, and inadequate human resources and expertise to analyze data are particularly critical challenges to the adoption of ICTs by smallholder farmers. Again, O’Shaughnessy and colleagues highlighted socio-economic concerns that surround smart agriculture as well as issues concerning data governance and incompatibilities within the suite of technologies being used as the other challenges to their adoption.
The adoption of technology by farmers in many developing countries including sub-Saharan African countries has historically been a challenge. This is because the adoption of new technologies usually translates to added cost and in the case of ICTs, their usual complexity, which requires a learning curve to operate and understand new hardware and software systems may be challenging. For example, hardware devices, software, training, and other expenses in addition to conventional irrigation costs may prove too expensive for small-scale farmers, especially where there is no assurance that the upfront monetary and time investments will result in improved outcomes in the form of increased yields or profitability. Again, poor awareness about ICT technologies has been reported as a contributor to the poor adoption of ICT solutions by smallholder farmers. A Korean study for example gave the reasons for non-adoption to include non-commensurate levels of compatibility between the technology needed to convert to smart farming and a farm’s readiness to embrace technology, the belief that the appropriate technology is not available or accessible, the digital environment is seen as a threat to a farm’s corporate culture, and finally, the cost to operate smart farm systems could be a financial drain.
The disparity in the level of ICT solutions adoption between different classes of smallholder farmers was also reported by Boloh and Cartmell-Thorp in their sub-Saharan African study, with women being grossly under-represented, and accounting for only 25 percent of the registered users of digital solutions while representing about half of the agricultural workforce in sub-Saharan Africa. Youths however accounted for 70 percent of the registered users, indicating an important age divide that needs to be bridged to engage the significant proportion of farmers from older groups.
There is a need to develop appropriate policies at the different levels, as well as the human resources, public infrastructure, and regulations that will boost the application of ICT solutions in smallholder agriculture. Boloh and Cartmell-Thorp observed that as ICT solutions for agriculture development, the opportunity to improve their uses and impact in Africa will also improve. They, therefore, made the following recommendations to both donors, governments, and investors:
1. Develop human capital at every level of the digital agriculture ecosystem. These should include increased awareness of ICT solutions, improved digital literacy, and greater digital skill-building among smallholder farmers and other actors across the agricultural value chain as well as the capacity of government staff, particularly in relevant ministries to understand how to use and deploy ICT solutions in various public initiatives.
2. Drive greater business model sustainability. Key to driving greater business model sustainability will be improving value for farmers, identifying and promoting successful business models, and mobilizing funding to support a more diverse set of companies.
3. Create greater impact by making ICT solutions more inclusive of women, other marginalized groups, and smallholders in regions with relatively less ICT investment. To achieve equitable growth, ICT needs to be more inclusive. Donors, in particular, can play a key role in catalyzing greater targeting of marginalized communities.
4. Invest in the missing middleware infrastructure. Successful ICT solutions require access to a wide range of data (from remote sensing data to farmer-specific data) to deliver high-quality services to farmers. Coordination between governments, donors, investors, farmers, and other interested parties will likely reduce duplication of efforts and result in higher-quality, efficient infrastructure that enterprises can rely on across regions.
5. Invest in good data stewardship and design for the risks and limitations of digital systems. Governments must design and implement approaches that appropriately balance the need for good data stewardship with the desire not to over-regulate and stifle innovations.
6. Invest in the ICT knowledge agenda. This should be in three major areas: how to design user-centric offerings that meet the needs of farmers, in particular women and other under-served communities; research to gather better market and business model intelligence to drive success in ICT for agriculture; and research to gather more robust evidence on the impact created by different use cases and business models.
7. Create an alliance of key ICT stakeholders to promote greater investment, knowledge sharing, and partnership building. This alliance should be built as a partnership between governments, donors, international bodies, farmer organizations, and the private sector dedicated to advancing inclusive, sustainable ICT for agriculture across Africa and beyond.
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