ccafs-senegal

John Corbett: Information Services Grow Resilient Agriculture

jdc-photo-headshot-2015-corbett-blog

In this guest blog, John Corbett, Gabe Stalcup and Leila Al-Hamoodah of big data company aWhere, Inc. discuss the need for “information agile” agriculture that can help smallholder farmers adapt to a changing climate.

Increased weather variability and weather disasters are a manifestation of our warming atmosphere.  This variability includes shifting rainfall and temperature patterns, as well as a significant increase in extreme weather events.  Of course, these events and weather variability are rarely positive for agriculture.  Crops are vulnerable to extreme events, like droughts and floods, and extreme temperatures, both too hot and too cold.

With weather variability increasing the risk of poor harvests, farmers seek more information to guide their decisions.  This new information is balanced against the farmer’s local knowledge as they plan their farming practices, and includes anticipation of “normal” weather.

To build resilience and adapt to these changing weather conditions and possible weather disasters, farmers must leverage environmental information and translate it into actionable signals.  This type of adaptive farming is already the norm in the much of the United States and Europe. Wet spring? Farmers can swap long-season seeds for shorter-maturity seeds to account for the later planting.  Conditions suitable for a foliar disease in the forecast?  Farmers can spray the appropriate protection. This type of agile, information-driven farming continues to leverage more and more data to the point where variable-rate seeding, crop protection, fertilization and irrigation are all adopted, commercially viable, agricultural technologies.

The Need & the Opportunity

Agronomic weather information is one key element to dampening the impact of weather variability.  Big Data methods and analytics combine to create agricultural intelligence, which is useful to farmers adapting to a changing climate.  And getting the message to farmers across the planet is helped enormously by modern technology, such as the ubiquitous cell phone.  The expanding presence of cellular systems provides the communication infrastructure to close the loop on the “final mile”, as millions of farmers have recently become reachable this way.  It is estimated that there are more than 570 million farmers on the planet – most of whom are only now being connected, and, thus, are accessible to information services.

However, throughout most of the world’s smallholder farming areas, there is a distinct lack of truly “information agile” farming. Traditional practices often rule, and with weather variably increasing, the likelihood of crop failure due to extreme weather events also increases.  The newfound access to farmers via ICT is both an incredible opportunity as well as a tremendous challenge.  The current lack of information services provides an opportunity for ICT to assist in improving agricultural productivity, and innovation is rapidly coming to the agricultural value chain in smallholder farming areas. At the same time, millions of these farmers have never previously had access to a localized, short-term weather forecast, thus necessitating education and training surrounding the value and use of such forecasts.  Early assessments of the impact of information services to small holder farmers often note 30-50 percent increases in productivity – the upside is solid. Notably, the overarching impact of connecting smallholder farmers to information services extends well beyond agriculture, and includes the opportunity for improved human health, child nutrition, social movements, and, of course, general education.

Delivering localized, relevant agricultural information to smallholder farmers is perhaps the only way to mitigate the impacts of weather variability, but more importantly, the connection to the farmer enables a whole host of possibilities across the spectrum of needs. Leo Tobias, Director, Technology and Product at the Grameen Foundation, noted: “If an individual is plugged into the information system, they are in a position to adopt good agricultural practices.”   Good agricultural practices will help agriculture and address climate adaptation and resilience, or “climate smart agriculture”.  These practices, from information on when to plant, as rainfall onset has become more variable in many areas, to what crop or variety to plant, to crop protection and fertilizer timing advice, address the challenges of changing weather, agricultural resilience, and smallholder farmer adaptation.

Agriculture sits at the core of the development process: “If the history of development has taught us anything, it’s that a strong agricultural sector is a cornerstone of inclusive and sustainable growth, broad-based development progress, and long-term stability,” a report by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs noted recentlySupporting agriculture delivers real returns, and innovation in information services is needed to achieve food security in the coming decades.  Across the agricultural value chain, information services serve to connect and optimize the food chain and make it more resilient.

The Information Solution

aWhere provides a range of timely agronomic and weather information to smallholder farmers, through NGO and on-the ground partners.  With more than 600,000 farmers globally, and over two-thirds of those in sub-Saharan Africa, we continue to learn how localized, up-to-date information impacts farming.  What we also have learned is that this connection to the farmer is a conduit that inspires innovation.

Localized and personal, trusted communication channels are viable and attractive to entrepreneurs.  Startups and emerging companies specializing in agriculturally relevant information vie for attention across the agricultural value chain.  The provision of information, and inputs, is a complex challenge with so many small businesses and the multitude of smallholder farmers. This complex challenge is risky and “paying down the risk” is where the blending of public and donor efforts with private, commercial endeavours can be quite enabling.  Timely information across the agricultural value chain is needed and necessary, but the introduction of new services is difficult in resource constrained areas.  As proof of viability becomes more pronounced, capacity building to encourage innovation is needed.  Communication channels along with public and donor support can be leveraged to create sustainable businesses supporting resilient agriculture.

For example, to encourage innovation in data-driven agriculture, aWhere hosts hackathons and data jams through its Hack4Farming series.  With events in sub-Saharan Africa and south Asia, these capacity-building efforts enable agricultural businesses, often with little information services, to meet-up with software developers for the express purpose of connecting big data methods to local business needs and challenges.  These events build a growing community in this ag-tech space, where startups can emerge and become sustainable, while commercial businesses work to make a more resilient agricultural value chain.  Meanwhile, on-the-ground startups like Esoko, iShamba, and FarmerLink lead the way in providing innovative and timely information to smallholder farmers, using aWhere’s agronomic real-time information.  With these final-mile connections, food security is greatly improved as existing information services can and will help with on-going adaptation and disaster mitigation.

Localized and timely agronomic information is a key piece of the puzzle to developing a sustainable and resilient agricultural system.  While more variable weather is here to stay, existing and yet to be developed agricultural information services can serve to dampen the impact of both long and short-term weather-based agricultural stress.  Given our changing climate, farmers need information to help them thrive with what the environment provides, as do input providers, markets, and actors all across the value chain.  While agricultural production shortfalls due to weather disasters and variability leave us vulnerable to food insecurity, building local capacity to connect data-driven science to smallholder farmers will reap dividends and build resilience.  Wherever trusted communication channels are in place, our risk is reduced.

This article appears in the May edition of WFO’s F@rmletter. Featured photo credit: V. Meadu (CCAFS)