Farming by Phone — The Story of Technology and Farming in sub-Saharan Africa
The future of Africa is bright. The cell phone boom in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) was unpredicted and will have a great impact on the development of farming in the region. However, the needs of African farmers differ from those around the world and the digital solutions they require will be drastically different from solutions that exist today.
The future of farming in sub-Saharan Africa will rely on the following technologies to advance yields and protect the environment. Most, but not all, follow the assumption that more and more farmers will get smartphones as time passes, as the graphs above show is likely.
- Variable Rate Technology, or VRT, is the application of seeds, fertilizers, or pesticides at varying rates throughout the field, instead of a uniform application.
- Remote Sensing is defined as gathering information about an object without directly touching it. In precision agriculture, this can be seen in the use of drones or satellites to use the visual or near-infrared spectrum to look at crops.
- IOT, or Internet of Things, is a term for physical devices that are connected to the internet, also known as smart devices. In precision agriculture, commonly takes the form of weather, temperature, or water sensors that gives the farmer information about the field.
- Mobile Banking
- Informational/Market Applications
Variable Rate Technology
In order to get access to the technology to do variable rate technology at scale, machinery is needed but tractors have a long history of failure in sub-Saharan Africa. There are a few organizations that have been working to do models where farmers can order a tractor, much like how urban citizens can order an Uber. These models are not yet self-sustaining but bring the potential that smallholder farmers will have access to machinery, including the variable rate technology that comes with it.
“Uber for Tractors”
- Hello Tractor in Kenya/Nigeria
- TroTro Tractor in Ghana
However, since plots are much smaller in sub-Saharan Africa, it makes sense that robotics would also be smaller and able to work with specialty crops. This would be much more financially accessible and able to work on tasks such as fertilizer, pesticide, or seed placement. It’s questionable if this technology will even be made, let alone accessible. Research in agriculture in SSA is under-funded, and it’s doubtable whether any of it is going into machinery development. So far development in this area has been largely limited to drones, and excluding small ground vehicles.
Crop scouting applications are applications that use drone or satellite imagery to look for disease, drought, or irregularity in crops. They are completely inaccessible to the average African farmer yet the idea holds great potential.
Areas of Improvement:
- More decisions systems, rather than raw data
- Better user-interfaces
- Many of the good systems: Don’t exist on mobile and are behind huge paywalls
In contrast, Close-up Disease Detection applications are apps that allow the user to take pictures of diseased plants up close and use either human feedback or computer vision to detect diseases. There are quite a few but among my favorites is Plantix, which includes a number of African crops and works remarkably well, although not perfectly.
Smart Irrigation could greatly conserve and maximize water resources by ensuring that plants are given exactly how much water they need. In addition, as digital field sensors for nitrogen, phosphorous, and soil micronutrients are developed, improved, and become cheaper, they have the potential to transform farming and make soil and water tests accessible to more farmers.
Right now, fish farmers often under or overfeed fish. Fish metabolism is highly dependent on temperature, since they are cold-blooded animals. Having a simple sensor that communicated the temperature and make recommendations of feeding from it. Additionally, this same application could track feed-conversion-ratio and other fish health metrics. Luckily there is one such solution in the works, Aquarech, and I’m excited to see where it goes.
Although these are not directly farming related — these are some of the most successful apps for farmers. By providing credit and banking services, it allows farmers to invest more in what
Mpesa is by and far the most famous service, but it is not the only one. Apps like Branch and Tala are providing loans that were previously inaccessible. As has been stated by many others, access to credit is a game changer and can lift people out of poverty.
Informational and Marketing apps aim to help farmers get information about growing crops or access local market prices. This classification of apps hold a lot of potential but have often failed to hit the mark. Some, like MFarm and eSoko have won many awards but fail to be sustainable.
It often seems that many of these apps fail due to lack of long-term adoption. Many of them rely on texting to disseminate information but there is strong evidence to suggest that farmers in SSA prefer calling to texting.
In addition, from the smartphone apps that I’ve analyzed that attempt to provide information to farmers, they miss the mark completely. Many of these applications are only available in English and have very little thought put into them. The main focus of one, Agric for Money, seems to be fun facts about different crops rather than providing important information that farmers could use.
Areas for Future Product Development
- Mobile crop scouts with satellite imagery
- Better decision support systems
- Cell phone NDVI/IR Cameras
- Improved mobile guides for farming in SSA
- Cheaper soil and water temperature sensors
- Text to speech software in local languages
From my analysis, the above areas for research and product development could greatly improve the ability of technology to help farmers in sub-Saharan Africa. It’s not enough to simply access technology, if that technology isn’t built for and doesn’t provide significant benefits to those who use it. Copy-and-pasting what has worked in the United States and other developed countries isn’t sufficient, there must be research and development that focuses on African needs.
To conclude: “The best way to predict the future is to create it.” If you’re interested in these areas and would like to build them alongside me or collaborate, please contact me at katekuehl(at)gmail.com.
Cell Phone Usage
- In much of sub-Saharan Africa, mobile phones are more common than access to electricity
- Majorities in sub-Saharan Africa own mobile phones, but smartphone adoption is modest
- Kenyan Farmers’ Use of Cell Phones: Calling preferred over SMS
- Why Don’t Farmers Use Cell Phones to Access Market Prices? Technology Affordances and Barriers to Market Information Services Adoption in Rural Kenya
- Nigerian National Space Research and Development Agency (NASDRA)
- Kenya’s Meru University of Science and Technology
Machinery in SSA
- Uber for Tractors is Really a Thing in Developing Countries
- The crop-spraying drones that go where tractors can’t
- Webinar Series: Internet of Things for Agriculture
- Mobile Phones: The Farmer’s New Tool
- Why don’t farmers use cell phones to access market prices? technology affordances and barriers to market information services adoption in rural Kenya
- Farmers’ use of mobile phone technology for agricultural information services in Lilongwe District, Malawi