The world changes so fast; so should agriculture. Technology has been a catalyst to the sky-rocketing changes in critical economic sectors like agriculture in different parts of the world. From when a farmer decides what to cultivate, when, how and where to sell the produce after harvesting; we’ve seen a tremendous shift. All these have been contributed by the drastic changes in technology and have revolutionized the way we farm today applying different innovative technologies in agriculture.
AgriTech simply means (Agriculture + Technology); it implies all the technical solutions be it software or hardware, that are applied in the agriculture sector to make it more productive and sustainable.
In a world where there are nearly 1 Billion people who go to bed each night with an empty stomach; technology proves to be among the best strategies to address this global issue. However tech disruptions in agriculture may bring both positive and negative changes. And, in some cases the situation might be more unpleasant than it was before. Are all the countries ready for the changes? Especially least developed countries? If not, how can they prepare?
We’re all aware that agriculture in developed countries is mostly contributed by 70% of smallholder farmers. So, by any means if it has to prosper we must first help smallholder farmers since they are the ones who feed the majority but they face many challenges. Many will not cope with these technological changes so we must create solutions that are pertinent to our economic, social and political ecosystem. Yes, solutions like drones help farmers to capture data over their entire farm, all from the comfort of a single (ideally, shady) take-off zone, but how many smallholder farmers can afford them? There are plenty of pretty cool solutions (GPS, Sensors, Robots, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles etc.), but will they scale rapidly to reach last-mile smallholder farmers who produce 70% of the food?. We all know that even after a thousand years, nothing will replace a seed being sown on the ground to produce fresh and natural food that we eat; rather how it is sown. Now, even if there will be major tech changes in the world, agriculture will still remain as the most important sector in the world.
In my opinion, if we have to improve the sector we must focus on issues that have been a major setback to agricultural developments from when Tanzania got independence in 1961 to now, and maybe look on how technology can help to increase the accessibility of these things. Or we have to create solutions that every smallholder farmer (even those who live under $2) can afford. My question and concern is; can there really be a tech solution that can be cost-effective and reliable to the majority of smallholder farmers? Here are my few cents;
1. Creating simple, affordable and accessible AgriTech solutions
We have to build solutions that will favor the majority of smallholder farmers. Software for farmers? No, the internet penetration is still lagging behind in rural areas and smartphone adoption is still a problem (there’s only 13% smartphone ownership in Tanzania— Pew Research Center).
My biggest bet is Unstructured Supplementary Service Data (USSD), Interactive Voice Response (IVR), helplines, post-harvest handling practices and simple agri-mechanized tools. These will help farmers directly and can even reach last mile farmers.
However, indirectly technological solutions can help farmers for example when they are used by agro-services providers like input suppliers and extension agents, data centers, industrial areas, logistics providers and researchers.
2. The government has to subsidize AgriTech solutions
Like when it was for farm input voucher system, even though it didn’t succeed by 100% but it somehow helped most of the smallholder farmers. So, the government should at least try this strategy on technological solutions that have proved to be effective in lifting smallholder farmers. Let’s say the solution is being sold at 100,000 Tanzanian Shillings, the government should contribute at least 75% and the rest 25% by farmers or it has to tax-exempt these technologies. This will at least increase the adoption of technological solutions in agriculture and boost productivity.
3. Startups, Corporates, NGOs and Stakeholders: Let’s concentrate on hardware solutions more than software
Let’s build relevant solutions that are appropriate to our country’s economic, social and political ecosystem. How many smallholder farmers can afford and easily adopt software solutions? A lot of software products have proved to be ineffective and do not fit with the needs of many rural smallholder farmers. I experienced this when we were building a peer to peer information and marketplace for farmers back in 2019 and we came to find out it was not a market-fit product (This will be a story for another day).
But if we build smart farming hardware solutions like simple locally-made agricultural machinery, post harvest tools and equipment. These will help the majority of farmers whether they are illiterate or in remote areas.
4. In this Digital Age; Information is a key
Are farmers well informed about the technology changes, the benefits and usage? Are they aware about the best farming practices currently used?
Making sure that farmers have all the info from farm to market, are aware about technology and they know how to use.
In 2019 when we were conducting extensive research on the farming ecosystem in Tanzania we visited smallholder farmers around Maji Club, Morogoro and we did an interview with them. Some of the things that shocked us was the frequency of attendance of extension agents and agri-officers to farmers. They said “In 3 months only 1 extension officer pays a visit directly to farmers and sometimes even a year pass”. Bear in mind that these farmers were not so far from remote areas. Can you imagine the situation to last mile farmers?
I think if we’re to adopt the technological transformations in agriculture, we must make sure smallholder farmers have all the necessary information. From decision making, cultivation, quality farm inputs, financial inclusion, harvesting, marketing to planning for the next season.
5. Youths can adopt fast; we should prepare them then
“ ICTs can play an important role in modernizing farming practices, incorporating elements of precision agriculture, and introducing new, innovative techniques to speed up and increase production. These technologies are often created and managed by tech-savvy youth. Young farmers are also generally early adopters or serve in formal or informal roles to support less tech-savvy farmers in using these technologies.”
Young people in Tanzania takes up to 64% of the total population. To make it simple to understand, if I throw a stone anywhere in Tanzania, it has a 0.6 chance to fall on a young person. In this digital generation, young people are the one who can learn fast and adopt easily to tech trends. If we are to make farming look lucrative for younger generation; then it has to be a combination of tech and agriculture. In this way it can not be seen as outdated and hard work as it is portrayed by many youths. Also, putting agriculture on school curricula could help young people see agriculture as a potential career and could change the narrative around it.
6. If we can’t keep pace, then let the painters paint
Yes, if we can’t ride two horses at once, then we shouldn’t be in the circus. Let’s just focus on the proven interventions to address challenges in the agriculture sector. Let’s ensure farmers have access to quality farm inputs, good post-harvest practices, are financially-included, have right knowledge, use better farming practices, improved irrigation and can access market. Because these are still a hurdle to many parts in Africa and we can’t keep on modern technologies while agriculture still has a lot of challenges.
I think if we’re at least to keep pace with the technological transformations in agriculture, we should focus on these things. Dating back to 1961 when we were using ploughs, outdated tractors and hand pump chemical spreaders to now when we are adopting modern technologies like Apps, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, Sensors and Robots; AgriTech still has better odds to favor smallholder farmers and Tanzania population as a whole.
Will technology going to save Tanzania’s Agriculture a delicious dessert (positive impact) and not a disaster (negative impact)?. Well, that will depend on how fast we learn, improve the current AgriTech Ecosystem and move forward.
Thank you for reading this piece.
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LinkedIn: Daniel Kweka