UNIVERSAL AND INCLUSIVE ACCESS TO GEOSPATIAL INFORMATION FOR INCREASED PRODUCTION AND PRODUCTIVITY IN AGRICULTURE AND WATER
There is a lot of attention for digitalisation for rural development (see for example the IT4D publication), however the sustainable increase of production and productivity in agriculture and water with the help of digitalisation has not reached scale yet. The current wisdom is that this is most likely, because most farmers in developing countries are smallholders, notoriously difficult to reach. Is this true? We’ll have a look.
But first a few starting remarks, going back to the title of this blog. Universal and inclusive access to geospatial information does not necessarily mean that this information is free. Inclusive is added, because people should be empowered to act on the information they get. Paradoxically, this strengthens the case for free, or at least affordable, information provision.
Returning to the subject: what makes the concept of digitalisation so attractive? There is a history of creating an enabling environment for digitalisation:
The first initiatives on digitalisation for agriculture were those by MNOs. A lot of these were evaluated in 2015 or 2016, but what happened after? The recently published GSMA AgriTech toolkit gives a good overview of best practices and examples. However, there is little information about value added services related to precision agriculture, only a statement that the business case is not clear (farm information is mostly used as a support measure for other services). This seems to confirm that indeed increasing production and productivity for smallholders is the most difficult part to address of the whole agricultural value chain.
But there are success stories. An example is the Garbal app for pastoralists, developed in the STAMP (Mali) and MODHEM (Burkina Faso) projects, supported by the G4AW Facility that promotes the use of satellite applications. Other G4AW success examples deal with weather (start of rainy season, forecasts, extremes and/or agronomic advice for high-value crops (vegetables) or crops that cover relatively large areas (rice) and/or index insurance.
Indeed, as the GSMA AgriTech toolkit and a recent GrowAsia study indicate, establishing a sustainable business case for these apps takes quite some time. In addition to that, the technology has to work, the transmission channels need to be appropriate for the target group and data protection and platform ownership need to be arranged (to ensure long-term success, platform costs should be kept as low as possible). In addition, several initiatives indicated that the service provided should consist of information instead of advice, to respect the position and expertise of the farmer / pastoralist as decision maker and often a bundling of services is requested by the target group (to be more effective and to avoid duplication and fragmentation). This makes sense, as increasing production is not very useful, if access to markets is the main limiting factor.
Water management-related apps are maybe easier to market than agricultural apps for smallholders, if one aims at the government as the main client and partner. An example is the use of the HydroNET platform of the company Hydrologic deployed for the Ministry of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development and water boards in South Africa. Usually it helps when these platforms are already developed for and functional in the home market.
This also applies to services that are offered to commercial farmers in developing countries. The € 10 – 13 / ha price (for a minimum of 25 ha) that the company IrriWatch charges for insight and advice on water consumption gives an indication of what to expect.
Other potential market opportunities are services for (local) government to facilitate decision making on food security, such as those developed by the AfriCultuReS project, and services based on the application (new) in situ sensors, such as those developed by the TWIGA project.
When looking at future perspectives, trends, opportunities and challenges, there are four types of providers (overlap is possible and the order does not give any indication of importance of priority) that can be distinguished as potential players in the market of services for agriculture and water:
Regardless of whoever will dominate the market, continuing support is needed to develop solutions that (also) cater to smallholders. Inclusiveness from start to end is a requirement for success, in the form of co-design and decision power for individual farmers and/or farmers’ organisations. Only if this condition is met, the promise of geospatial information of creating opportunities that change the context of doing business for and with smallholders will be fulfilled.
Written by: Mark Noort