Innovation and technology have critical roles to play if smallholder farmers across the world are to become more productive and sustainable.
This year’s FAO International Symposium on Innovation for Family Farmers in Rome brought together innovators, farmers and policymakers to discuss how we can best combine farmers’ knowledge with the latest technology to meet these goals.
A side event co-hosted by Farming First, the International Agri-Food Network and Government of Nigeria, explored some of the best transformative technologies making farming more efficient and productive, while achieving agroecological outcomes.
The recent UN General Assembly Resolution on Agricultural Technology for Sustainable Development recognized “the need to further enhance the linkages between agricultural technology and agroecological principles, such as recycling, resource use efficiency, reducing external inputs, diversification, integration, soil health and synergies, in order to design sustainable farming systems that strengthen the interactions between plants, animals, humans and the environment for food security and nutrition, enhance productivity, improve nutrition, conserve the natural resource base and attain more sustainable and innovative food systems.”
Following a successful prior event at FAO during the Committee on World Food Security, this event brought together a global panel of experts to discuss how innovation and agroecology can work together hand in hand.
Jack Froese, President of the Canadian Canola Growers Association, spoke about the role technology can play in helping reducing waste and helping increase farmers’ incomes. He outlined how new plant breeding has helped to reduce post-harvest losses by keeping plant pods intact and seed ready for harvest.
“Farmers need choices of innovations,” he commented.
He highlighted Self Help Africa’s work on conservation agriculture, in which farmers are supported to improve soil health through intercropping and minimum soil disturbance.
Shiv Kumar Agrawal, a lentil breeder at ICARDA, highlighted the importance innovation can play in helping to drive crop diversity and drive food systems change.
He highlighted ICARDA’s breeding work that has shortened the growing season for pulses and legumes, allowing them to fit into crop rotations with rice.
This innovation goes beyond simply increasing productivity. Agrawal added that innovation could bring other positive outcomes. ”This is good for the environment and for nutrition.”
The event also brought to the fore the role of next generation farmers in promoting the wider use of technology.
“As a farmers’ organisation, we have championed ecological farming, more direct marketing, and working with youth in cities,” Pulungan said, adding that young people as a generation are crucial in driving the partnerships that are needed to deliver systemic change.
“We need to boost acceleration, and boost partnerships, in order to accelerate innovation.”
Featured photo credit: Robynne Anderson
Mark Young, Chief Technology Officer at Climate Corporation, looks at how digital technology can empower farmers, feed the world and protect the planet
Farmers face a dual challenge. How can they produce the food required to feed the world, while protecting the planet at the same time? The solution will rest on finding effective ways to minimize the losses of energy, water and nutrients associated with farming.
Digital agriculture – the use of data to make more informed decisions about managing agronomic operations – holds the key to increased efficiency on the farm.
It allows farmers to act with precision, known as precision agriculture. Drones, sensors and farm robots can tell us precisely where and how much water should be applied, keeping losses to an absolute minimum. They can spot pests and disease early and generate prescriptions to optimize soil and crop health.
In this guest blog post, Vanessa Mukhebi of Mediae – the production company behind agricultural reality TV shows Shamba Shape Up and Don’t Lose the Plot – discusses the digital innovations helping farmers with agronomic and budgeting challenges. By harnessing the digital boom, she argues that more African youth can be enticed into agricultural careers.
It is often said that youth carry the potential to transform agricultural productivity and contribute to global food security for a booming population that is set to increase by two billion by 2050. However, debating the future of farming and rural development is pointless without the willingness of the youth themselves to engage in the sector. This potential can only be realised through an image overhaul of farming.
Yet several solutions to this challenge exist right in their back pockets.
The drawback of farming-related careers in preference for white collared employment in urban areas, is partly on account of the societal prejudices and misconceptions held about such careers, as well as the limited knowledge about the opportunities available in agricultural industry that are economically prosperous.
Fortunately, through rapid advancement in information and communication technologies, and increased access to the internet through mobile devices, agriculture in the developing world has become a vibrant field full of effective and creative innovations.
And with young people already predisposed to this digital revolution, these solutions provide unparalleled access to information to help them take advantage of the exciting opportunities within the industry.
In countries like Kenya, where overstretched extension services are unable to adequately support producers, mobile solutions such as iShamba, offer the ability to disseminate timely and relevant information regarding production, input supplies, weather updates and market price information.
Additionally, the farmer information and advisory service is equipped with a call centre staffed with agricultural experts, where farmers can SMS or call to get instant advice seven days a week.
Farming communities can also exchange information with each other through the service’s location-based WhatsApp groups and get advice from iShamba’s agricultural experts on best farming practices. Simon Mwangi, a young farmer from Nyeri, Kenya, says that the platform helped him venture into farming.“Thanks to iShamba’s agronomic advice, I managed to grow tomatoes for the first time. I have already started harvesting my tomatoes and they are doing well.”
Though the platform is highly interactive, the challenge remains on how best to engage youth.
The appeal of farming to young people hinges on its ability to be recast and marketed as a profitable enterprise; agribusiness has to be promoted in favour of agriculture.
Our newest reality television show called Don’t Lose the Plot is aiming to do just that – stem the exodus of rural youth to urban areas and encourage them into agribusiness.
Set on a sprawling farm on the outskirts of Nairobi, Kenya, the show follows four young farmers from Kenya and Tanzania, who are given one acre plots to farm side-by-side for nine months. At the end, the farmer with the most profitable and sustainable business wins an agricultural investment worth US$10,000.
Each young farmer had access to a panel of advisors that critiqued their ideas and approach while encouraging them to use modern, labour saving techniques to make the most of their land. After developing a business plan for their farm, they got access to financing, set up their farms, managed them and marketed their produce profitably.
Ken, one of the contestants from Kenya, lauded the show for exposing him to the opportunities that young people such as himself have at their disposal to improve their livelihoods. “I see this competition as an eye opener, to the resources that we have in our country. To increase food security, and to try to solve the unemployment issue amongst youth. I think I’m doing something great here.”
Nevertheless, what was evident right from the start is that young farmers need assistance in creating realistic budgets and managing their finances.
The tool allows young aspiring and inexperienced farmers to view estimated costs and profits from various commodities that are high-value and short-term such as broilers and onions.
Through Budget Mkononi, hopeful entrepreneurs can explore the relative merits of each and visualise their cash flow requirements for the duration of the farming cycle, showing young farmers how to farm in a productive and sustainable manner.
Developed by Regulus Ltd, the tool is designed specifically for use on mobile devices and went through several stages of user-testing to ensure that it met the needs of its target audience. The interactive functionality also allows farmers to customise their budgets based on their specific circumstances.
What’s apparent is that with such solutions at hand, the days that farming was the domain of the uneducated are gone.
Connectivity through ICTs enables solutions such as iShamba and Budget Mkononi to shape a new frontier of farming that is young, vibrant and innovative. All youth need to know, is that success is within their reach – right under their fingertips.
A longer version of this article first appeared in the World Farmers’ Organisation Farmletter.