TECHNOLOGY ADOPTION A MUST IN MODERN FARMING
The world population is projected to reach about 9.1 Billion by 2050. In order to feed this ever increasing population, farmers must change how they approach food production. With climate change, increased rural urban migration and fertile soils being lost to urbanization, farmers must increasingly produce more food using the same amount or even less resources. To maximize production in the face of increasing challenges, farmers must adopt technology.
EMERGING TECHNOLOGIES [THE FOURTH INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION]
The fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) is the current and developing environment where technologies and trends such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), Internet of Things (IoT), Robotics and Virtual Reality are redefining the way we live and work.
Artificial Intelligence is the simulation of human intelligence processes by machines especially computers. The combination of Artificial Intelligence and Robotics is seen as a big game changer in modern times.
Robotics deals with the design, construction, operation and use of robots as well as computer systems for their control, sensory feedback and information processing (wikipedia). Robots are mostly used in risky situations such as bomb detection and deactivation or in risky search and rescue missions. Recently in Kenya, rescuers who were working to recover a car that had slid off a ferry and sank into the Indian Ocean deployed a robot machine to help locate the car.
Agricultural robotics is the use of automation to perform tasks. Robots are mainly deployed during harvesting though they can also autonomously perform tasks like seeding, scouting, spraying, tending to crops, collecting soil and crop samples or even monitoring animals. The opportunities for robot enhanced productivity are immense.
In comparison to humans, robots can work non-stop and in hazardous environments. Robots can greatly increase precision and efficiency and save time and money. Robots can also be programmed to sense quality parameters like weight, size, colour, firmness, ripeness and shape more accurately.
Virtual Reality is the application of computer technology to simulate environments. I see virtual reality as a potential learning tool of the future where small scale farmers can be exposed to modern agricultural concepts through the use of virtual reality. Farmers for instance can have a feel of modern farms in Israel or Europe from the comfort of their homes.
THE INTERNET OF THINGS
The Internet of Things (IoT), which is largely regarded as probably the biggest idea since the internet, aims at connecting things or devices in much the same way as the internet connected communities.
IoT connects devices that have the ability to sense and communicate. This includes devices that are not traditionally regarded as communication tools. These IoT devices can sense changes in the environment like the amount of moisture in the soil, change in heart rate or body temperature, changes in temperature in the room, opening or closing of a door, changes in light intensity etc, make decisions or inferences based on those parameters and communicate with other devices, notifying them of these changes and triggering actions that are required in response to these parameters. Applications of IoT in agriculture include:
- Precision farming – IoT in agriculture enables smart monitoring and control of parameters such as soil moisture, temperature, humidity and light. The information is constantly communicated to other devices which are programmed to take certain actions based on observed parameters. For example, when temperatures rise to a certain point in a greenhouse, the temperature sensor can communicate with the controller triggering it to turn on the misting system or cooling fan or if moisture stress is detected by the moisture sensor, the controller can turn on the irrigation system and deliver just the right amount of water. Precision farming enables conservation of resources such as water, pest control products and fertilizers.
- Monitoring and Management of animals – IoT devices can monitor animal movement and health. Sick animals can be quickly identified and isolated and those that require attention such as animals due to be served or heifers due to calf down, monitored closely for quick action.
DATA COLLECTION AND PROCESSING
The deployment of agricultural technologies requires timely collection, transmission and analysis of data sometimes in real time. Drones and Big Data Analysis are largely deployed in this regard.
A drone is a small unmanned aerial vehicle. The term Agricultural drone can be used to define a drone deployed specifically for agricultural purposes. Fitted with sensor and digital imaging capabilities, drones are changing farming and land management. They are used to gather critical data which is then used for evidence based planning. The information gathered by drones is only useful if it can be analyzed accurately and quickly and processed into actionable information for purposes of planning or decision making.
Areas of application include:
- Monitoring of field crop performance – Drones can map spatial variability in a field allowing for early corrective action such as precise fertilizer application to be taken. Images collected by drones can be used to develop Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) maps which when combined with indexes such as the Crop-Water Stress Index (CWSI) and the Canopy-Chlorophyll Content Index (CCCI) can be used to identify distressed and underperforming crops early in the season.
- Precision Irrigation – Information collected by drones can be integrated into smart irrigation systems to enhance precise irrigation planning.
- Pest control – Drones can be used to obtain high resolution, high precision images which help in identifying pests and other anomalies.
- Yield estimate – Very accurate yield assessments can be achieved for purposes of planning for market and subsequent production.
- Fertilizer Spraying – Drones can be used to spray fertilizers and pest control products more quickly and efficiently.
- Weather analysis – Drones can provide valuable data for weather analysis.
- Agricultural Insurance – Drones can be deployed in Agricultural Insurance assessment. They are used to assess damage and give an accurate assessment of loss.
- Environmental Conservation – Drones can be used to monitor forests, movement of animals, forest fires, poachers etc.
In brief, drones can help farmers optimize the use of inputs, achieve more tasks like scouting within a shorter time and with little manpower, identify and react to threats such as weeds and pests , identify variability in crop performance and estimate expected yields correctly. The net effect is saving on time, saving money and environmental conservation as a result of precision farming.
BIG DATA ANALYTICS
Big data can be defined as extremely large volumes of data sets that may be analyzed computationally to identify patterns or trends. This data may or may not be structured. Big data analytics is applied in scenarios where the data is so large such that it is not possible to use traditional data analytics tools. Big data analysis enables the users to identify long term trends, discover hidden insights, identify outliers and consequently make faster and more informed decisions which leads to better productivity. Big data is largely described from three perspectives i.e. volume, variety and velocity.
Big data can be generated from sensors, internet transactions and interactions such as email, video click streams etc.
Connecting small farms with open data about market prices, expected yields across the country or region etc can help bridge the information gap and help them compete against bigger farms or better negotiate prices with market agents.
CLOSER HOME – THE SMALL SCALE FARMER
Such emerging technology is increasingly being deployed for Agricultural purposes but largely in large scale farms. Small scale farmers are in many instances still struggling with adoption of simple technologies.
FACTORS LIMITING TECHNOLOGY ADOPTION BY SMALL SCALE FARMERS
In order to encourage technology adoption, industry players must first overcome the barriers that have hindered technology adoption in the first place. These include:
- Lack of access to information – Rural based farmers are not adequately exposed to yield enhancing technologies and their benefits. This is perhaps as result of limited exposure to the internet and other information sources. The situation is compounded by poor access to extension services.
- Cost of adopting the technologies – Anticipated benefits of adoption must outweigh the cost of adoption. Small holder farmers are discouraged by cost of adoption.
- Small land sizes – Most technologies are adapted for large production units.
- Age – Despite increasing interest and uptake of farming by the youthful population, the average age for farmers in Kenya remains high. The older generation is a lot more resistant to technology adoption in comparison to the younger population.
- Poor access to credit – Lack of collateral, high interest rates, lack of information on credit facilities, traditional perceptions about credit and lack of products tailor made for the agriculture sector are some of the reasons that have traditionally limited credit uptake by small scale farmers.
- Poor infrastructural development – Low internet and electricity penetration in rural areas.
INTERVENTIONS THAT CAN LEAD TO TECHNOLOGY ADOPTION BY SMALL SCALE FARMERS
- Information dissemination through training and demonstrations: The first step in the adoption of any technology is getting to know about that particular technology. Farmers cannot adopt technologies they have not been exposed to. It is only after exposure can they consider and adopt the technologies. More training and capacity building of small scale farmers on modern technologies should therefore be conducted to encourage adoption. Sometimes simple lessons like how to use smart phones to access information from the internet and to interact with other farmers on interactive platforms, or how to use search engines like Google can go a long way in encouraging adoption.
- Providing holistic information through collaboration along the value chain and vertical integration: Players along the value chain must work together to provide holistic information to farmers. For instance providing irrigation systems without other requisite inputs like high yielding seeds, the right fertilizer and training on production techniques may not achieve the desired change. Fostering collaboration along the value chain with the view of collectively delivering a good end user experience for the farmer is therefore an important success factor.
- Improved access to extension services: Farmers seem to have very high regard for public and private extension officers. Their decisions are heavily hinged on the advise they receive from these officers. Extension officers can play a crucial role in influencing small scale farmers to adopt technology. Such officers must however also be educated and exposed to modern technologies. Increased interactions with extension officers through field days, village promotions, demonstration farms, exchange visits, one on one visits and through internet enabled platforms can encourage adoption.
- Improved access to innovative credit facilities tailor made for the agriculture sector: Over and above the normal business risks, farmers are exposed to additional risks as a result of increasingly unpredictable weather patterns, the constant threat of diseases and insects and high commodity price fluctuations in markets that are often tightly controlled by brokers. Providers of credit and agricultural input providers must be cognizant of these unique challenges when designing credit products for small scale farmers. This will allow them to access credit without unnecessary bottlenecks. Credit facilities will allow farmers to access and use technologies as they use them.
QUICK WINS FOR SMALL SCALE FARMERS
Simple technologies that can be adopted by small scale farmers to increase productivity and profitability:
- Sensor based irrigation powered by solar energy.
- Greenhouse Farming. Farmers can go a step further and incorporate temperature and moisture sensors and control mechanisms.
- Soil and water testing technologies.
- Hydroponics and Aquaponics.
- Use of hybrid seeds that are drought and disease tolerant and higher yielding.
- In-vitro tissue culture plant breeding.
- Artificial Insemination.
- Incorporation of pheromone traps and sticky traps in their pest management strategies.
- Improved post harvest handling and storage techniques such as hermatic bags.
- Digitized Agricultural Services like Market information by M-Farm, Ujuzi Kilimo soil testing services, Financial Services by Farm Drive etc.
- Online market places can help farmers expand beyond their local markets and get best prices from across the country.
- Farm Management software can help farmers better understand their operations and numbers and subsequently improve efficiency at the farm.
- Networking for production and market information through social media platforms like WhatsApp, Facebook etc. Facebook is a popular avenue in Kenya for connecting farmers through farmers groups with hundreds of thousands of members both farmers and professionals.
Simple and affordable technologies like drip irrigation can help farmers increase yields by up to five times or more. Drip irrigation also conserves water, is not labour or time intensive and allows for targeted application of water soluble fertilizers. The efficiency of drip can be enhanced by using moisture sensors and automatic valves communicating through a controller, the automated system working to deliver just the right amount of water to the crops.
The technology space in farming has the potential of opening up more spaces for the youth to participate in farming by developing solutions that solve real world problems like diminishing resources, a ballooning world population and climate change. Now, more than ever, is the time to invest in the AgTech space.
By, Clifton Opala
Clifton Opala is the founder of Ace Intergrated Services, an Agricultural Services Firm offering end to end solutions to farmers. The firm specializes in Construction of Greenhouses, Shade structures & other Farm Structures; Irrigation Systems Design and Installation; Farm planning, establishment & Management; Ground water identification & Drilling and Farmer Training. The firm also has capacity to design and conduct Baseline and Impact Assessment Surveys for Agricultural Interventions.
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