Hawali Lucy is a small-scale farmer in Namingo, Tanzania. She is part of a community of smallholder farmers using a mobile service called Agriinfo. Agriinfo, Sokopepe, We-Farm, and other services similar in nature, have been introduced in parts of Eastern and West Africa in the last few years, making it possible for farmers to access data for decision-making on their farms.
However, all of these services have some built-in assumptions about their target users. They assume that smallholder rural farmers like Hawali, who form the majority of farmers in ACP countries, have the basic literacy and technology skills necessary to extract value from these services. In reality, these are real hurdles for the majority of farmers.
These aren’t the only hurdles. The average age of farmers is 60 years worldwide. Many in the developing world are older and are women, who have lower than average literacy skills. Smallholder farmers also have poor access to formal financial services and credit (if at all), and can scarcely afford access to the infrastructure most data-driven applications and services use, such as mobile broadband. And yet, the proliferation of mobile apps and web-based services targeting them continues, with new technologies joining the basket of ‘cool’ tools that will save the ACP smallholder farmer from a dark future. Tools like drones, the Internet of things – the interconnectivity of internet-linked computing devices in everyday objects – infrastructure and satellite data.
While data-driven farming may be the future of our agriculture, smallholder data-driven farmers in the ACP may not look anything like their counterparts in the developed world. Their data-driven farming may not be powered by iPads, smart phones, sensors and drones that they own. The focus may need to be centered elsewhere in the broader ecosystem, rather than on smallholder farmers per se.
While Hawali and her colleagues are early adopters of technology driven approaches to farm management and a commercialization of smallholder agriculture, the majority of smallholders will continue to rely on the intermediaries they have known and trusted for many years. These intermediaries are doing the necessary work of introducing farmers to improved practices, seeds and fertilisers. The intermediaries, together with the farmers, are working at the frontlines of increasing agricultural production in order for the world to meet its target for sustainable food production to feed the world by 2050. They intermediate information and so we also refer to them as infomediaries.
It is the infomediaries we need to focus on when exploring ways to make data-driven farming a reality. They are the ones who will most likely wield the smart devices, have access to the satellite data and make sense of the highly granular soil data useful in making decisions on what to plant, what input to use or what practice to adopt. It’s these infomediaries who will transform data into information and knowledge by putting up data-informed outputs on public notice boards in rural markets, explaining their insights in the regional language on FM radio, publishing infographics and informational pieces in newspapers, and making appearances on TV. It’s the infomediaries, such as the extension services providers, who will knock on doors and sit with farmers to explain what the data is saying and what they need to do next.
One day, in the distant future, we will have smallholder farmers adopting precision agriculture and other data-driven technology-based practices. But until then, we need to adjust our expectations accordingly in order to make progress.