planting the seed

Planting the seed for an integrated precision farming platform for smallholders

The first day started with a tour through Berlin – and through the future of agriculture. At the end of day two, we had planted the seed of this vision: an integrated platform that would unleash the productivity of smallholder farmers. This post describes the journey of the precision agriculture track at the ii2030 even in Berlin on October 18 and 19.

CONVERGENT TECHNOLOGY

Our tour through Berlin introduced us to 3 agribusiness technologies:

1.   eKutir: This platform links more than 70.000 farmers with information and markets. Almost 500 micro-entrepreneurs advise farmers, facilitate access to credit, provide seed and procure products. This intermediation sets eKutir apart from many purely mobile-based offerings for farmers, Founder KC Mishra explains. The result: on average, farmers double their yield and triple their income. An indigene to Odisha, India, eKutir has already spread to 3 more countries.

2.   INFARM: Standing on a ladder, the girl harvests mint from the top shelf of an eerily lit glasshouse inside a Neukölln industrial building. On 2 square meters, the hydroponic system developed by Berlin startup INFARM is home to 900 mint plants, 30 of which are harvested daily. CFO Martin Weber believes that while these “urban farms” now shorten supply chains to the direct neighbourhood, in the future, this technology might help to feed the world’s growing population.

3.   PEAT: Small farmers can now find out what plagues their plants with Plantix. The app allows farmers to diagnose plant diseases and find remedies. Farmers take pictures of unhealthy plants, and PEAT’s big data-trained algorithm recognizes the patters. With now 300.000 users, the algorithm becomes ever more powerful. Founder and CEO Simone Strey explains that it is now also able to identify outbreaks of pests on a regional level to inform policy action.

Glimpses of data-driven innovation for small-scale farming. We can sense that by 2030, these convergent technologies can empower small farmers around the globe to increase the quantity and quality of their production and compete successfully on the market.

AN INTEGRATED PLATFORM

How might we translate these convergent technologies into better business opportunities for small farmers? Day 2 was all about designing a concrete solution.

Despite the diversity of backgrounds in the group, there was wide agreement that isolated solutions do not help, and that any service offering to farmers needs to consider how higher productivity can translate into higher earnings. Our solution: an integrated platform that would bundle existing services including information (on soil, weather, markets, plant health and agricultural practices), access to inputs, equipment leasing, finance, post-harvest services and access to markets. Linking these services can create a range of synergies. For example, knowing what inputs were used can ease certification. A track record of production improves creditworthiness. The results of interventions on plant health can be monitored, thus improving recommendations.

MIDDLEMEN MONOPOLIES TAMED

“Middlemen”, or, more neutrally, intermediaries, would still play an important role in this system. Microenterprises or cooperatives serve as an aggregation point between suppliers or offtakers and farmers. They can also support farmers in their decision making and provide advice. How do we keep these traditional benefits of middlemen, but get rid of their power to exploit farmers? Through transparency. Like an Amazon for farmers, the platform should allow farmers to rate and provide feedback on products and exchange good practices.

SMOOTHING RISKS

Money could also flow through such a system like through a nicely laid out irrigation grid. Today, the burden of financing production rests solely on the small farmer. The farmer has to take a loan to invest in inputs, not knowing what yield she may achieve, or what price she will get for the harvest. Generally, this burden leads to underinvestment, because financial institutions have no guarantee for payback, and farmers have no means to manage risks. Information about the production track record of a farmer would improve her creditworthiness, especially when combined with crop insurance. Financing and risk exposure could be spread across this system and beyond. For example, a future market for small farmers would allow them to sell their production at a fixed price already at planting time.

PLANTING THE SEED

Such an integrated precision farming platform may seem out of reach from where we are today. But we can start small, with eKutir as our acre, planting seed after seed.

Co-authors are all participants of the ii2030 precision agriculture track, who designed the idea, including, among others, KC Mishra (eKutir), Peter Merz (HEKS), Mark Harper (Welthungerhilfe) Rutger Bults (IB Accelerator), Daniella Mendoza (IB Sweden).