The Future Of Farming In The Face Of Climate Change

The Future Of Farming In The Face Of Climate Change

John Converse Townsend's picture

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The challenges faced by farmers are immeasurable. They’ll have to produce an additional ton of food per acre by 2050 to ensure that nine billion people can get their fill—no easy feat. But agriculture’s tech revolution, or Ag 3.0, looks to be a game-changer.

Tomorrow’s food producer will benefit from data-driven farming—checking satellite images and sensors attached to both equipment and crops will be routine. Farmers already benefit from access to vital information about weather patterns, soil conditions and market demand, and can even access financial services with a few taps of their mobile phone.

Ag 3.0 is a serious boost for smallholder farmers, 500 million strong, who produce most of the world’s food on a quarter of the planet’s farmland. Why? Because they’re not only strapped for resources in emerging markets, but are also disproportionately affected by climate impacts. Many smallholders in Africa, for example, are struggling to cope with drought, flooding and shifts in rainfall. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts that farmers in some countries on the continent may see yields from rain-fed agriculture halved by 2020.

“When I was young, my auntie could just look into the sky, look at the clouds, look at the birds flying by and say, ‘Oh it’s going to rain in two days,’ but with climate change farmers can’t predict the weather,” Alloysius Attah said.

Attah, 26, co-founded Farmerline with Emmanuel Owusu Addai in 2013. It’s a mobile messaging platform that caters to thousands of farmers in Nigeria, Malawi, Sierra Leone, Cameroon, and their home country, Ghana, where smallholders account for 80 percent of domestic food production. Attah’s goal is to equip farmers with the tools to thrive despite the unknowns presented by climate change.

“We push agriculture content to small-scale farmers to help them succeed: weather forecasts, financial tips, agro-informatics, market prices,” Attah said. “Technology gives farmers a few days notice. It helps them deal with changes and better manage their inputs.”

The content is delivered through Farmerline’s MergData technology—SMS, mobile surveys and voice recordings in a dozen local languages—which makes the service inclusive for farmers with little formal education as well as those who are illiterate. And it works. Farmers in the network get a better idea of what to plant, and when, or how much fertilizer to use. As a result, they see higher yields, less waste, and on average increase their income by more than 50 percent per acre. “Fili-fili. Seeing is believing,” Attah said.

Two-thirds of Africa’s labor force works in agriculture, which means there’s massive potential for data-driven farming to transform livelihoods—and the tech seems to be taking care of itself. Nowhere have mobile subscriptions grown faster than in Africa, which is projected to have 1.2 billion subscriptions by 2018 (with 412 million smartphone connections).

“Africa is becoming a digital native continent,” Opio David said. “Over 18 million people in Uganda, for example, are using mobile phones to access different services. It’s not a new thing, but it’s expanding at a fast rate. People are excited about the technology.”

David and his business partner, Gerald Otim, launched the mobile money service Ensibuuko in 2012. Their tech enables farmers to plow through another barrier to productivity and profitability: limited access to finance. 

The majority of the rural poor in Uganda, smallholder farmers, are not formally banked. This means they’re often short on cash for farming inputs (seed, fertilizer or equipment) and lack the means to put extra land into productive use. Few reach commercial scale. Many smallholders do, however, belong to Savings and Credit Cooperative Societies (SACCOS). “But most of these institutions are still not digitized. They use paperwork to manage records and operations, which is inefficient,” David said.

That’s where Ensibuuko comes in: “The software we built, MOBIS, takes those processes online. MOBIS is also integrated with a digital wallet we call ChapChap, which translates to ‘QuickQuick’ in Kiswahili. With this wallet, farmers can request credit, repay their loans, check financial statements, and deposit savings.”

Because internet access is still very much a luxury for smallholders, the MOBIS technology is accessible with 2G and 3G devices, granting farmers access to a suite of financial services on their basic feature phones. More than 100 SACCOS are currently connected to MOBIS from a central database, allowing them to not only use the technology in real-time across different branches but also offer lower interest rates to smallholders.

"Technology was absolutely in the lead role" in reducing the poverty rate in Africa from 56 percent to 35 percent, Jeffrey Sachs said last week at Solve at MIT. On the ground, and in the cloud, it’s obvious that connectivity makes scaling up easy for entrepreneurs in the business of social good. And that means brighter futures for communities living on $2 per day.

“Ensibuuko’s banking solution has half a million subscribers,” David said. “They’re making a combined 1,500,000 transactions every month, valued at about $350,000. This tells us that farmers, even those in rural areas, are willing to take on digital solutions to access financial services.” The Ensibuuko team hopes to connect 1,000 SACCOS by 2017.

In West Africa, Attah and his team are in talks with NGOs interested in “riding” his MergData system to further improve livelihoods. A powerful channel for reaching rural communities, MergData stands to deliver more than agricultural information: It's been optimized for use in 19 countries and it won’t be long before rural farming families will be able to opt-in to receive information and updates relating to human rights, health, women’s empowerment, and more.

Alloysius Attah and Opio David are social entrepreneurs whose work and social impact exemplify United Nations Global Goal 2: Zero Hunger. This story is part of a series which spotlights leading young innovators to support the Unilever Sustainable Living Young Entrepreneurs Awards, launched by Unilever in partnership with Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership and in collaboration with Ashoka. To find out more about the Awards and the Global goals for Sustainable Development, head to changemakers.com/globalgoals2015.

To follow the conversation on Twitter, search #GlobalGoals for a #BrightFuture.