Forests and agriculture | Opinion

Can smallholders count on better data?

Image cropdreamstimexs55055029 1 thumb 2x

Online in the field

Real-time information delivery can make a massive difference for smallholder farmers

Thomas Jefferson’s assertion that “knowledge is power” may well be true. But for the millions of smallholder farmers operating on pockets of land around the world, access to information might simply mean the difference between survival and extinction.

There are clear benefits to farmers of accessing data and real-time information – about the weather, soil conditions and market needs, for example. A combination of increased agricultural knowledge and data from remote sensing or mapping might offer farmers early warnings of adverse conditions.

This could be crucial in not only protecting crops from pests and extreme weather events, but also for boosting yields, keeping a check on water supplies and for anticipating any changes around the corner that might be brought about by climate change.

Data that is shared or reused can have a “far greater value than if it were simply used for its original purpose”, was a key conclusion of a recent Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA) working paper.

Data deficit

However, working out how best to deliver on this opportunity is still in its infancy. According to research from ICT, while the opportunities might appear to be plentiful, a lack of reliable and contextualised data is currently working against smallholder farmers.

Currently, open agricultural data in developing countries is thin on the ground. Information must be localised to have the desired effect. As Theo de Jager, president of the Pan African Farmers’ Organisation pointed out to ICT “On a farm – whether it is one thousand hectares or only one hectare – I need real-time information. What does the market want now? What’s my soil like now? What’s the weather like now?’” 

Better information means farmers are better equipped to know what to plant and when, yet this type of data remains hard to get hold of.

Real-time forecasts

That said, there have been a number of breakthroughs, particularly in weather forecasting tools and services designed to get real-time information into the field at a low cost. Ignitia is proving to be a popular mobile application for farmers operating in the tropics, where it is notoriously difficult to make accurate weather predictions.

Meanwhile, in Uganda, ICT4Ag-enabled Information Service is providing farmers with satellite-based data to help improve agronomic practice as well as financial and index-based insurance services and market intelligence on where and when to sell.

FarmSat and FieldLook are among the growing number of service providers offering satellite-based crop monitoring. Such advice-by-satellite is said to increase smallholder productivity by around 40%.

But it is in their ability to access finance – with better information as to crop performance and input costs, providing greater assurances to lenders – that many farmers have the greatest opportunity.

How to use it?

However, as Zara Rahman, a researcher at tech specialists Engine Room, warns, there is a crucial need to build capacity among smallholder farmers so they can deal with the growing amounts of data as they are becoming accessible. “Simply making data available is not enough … and more needs to be done, potentially through providing low-cost advisory services on data use, or more accessible capacity building options.”

After all, knowledge is power only if you know how to use it.

Upcoming events See all

The Future of Food

Calendar icon Virtual (BST Time Zone)

Location icon 15th - 17th June 2021

The Future of Climate Action USA

Calendar icon Virtual

Location icon 28th - 29th September 2021

The Future of Plastics

Calendar icon Virtual

Location icon 12th - 13th October 2021

Sustainable Landscapes and Commodities Forum

Calendar icon Virtual

Location icon 30th November 2021 - 2nd December 2021

Stay updated with the latest news, insights and updates

Sign up to our newsletter