The ability to consistently produce food is one of the many reasons why societies as complex as ours are possible. With some assurances that there will be a means of sustenance people began to settle into communities.
Be it growing crops or domesticating animals, mankind began to slowly emerge from surviving on what nature provided and for the first time having some say in its own survival. However, early agriculture still depended heavily on nature. Good rains meant that there would be a good harvest. In years when rains weren’t so plentiful it would mean that food would be limited.
Manipulation of the environment changed that. Mankind started redirecting water supplies to fields and irrigating crops. This meant as long as rivers flowed there would be food for the people. Artificial selection also improved the haul of the harvest.
To “hack” nature, in order to extract a desired feature from a crop or animal greatly improved the odds of humanity’s survival and the quality of produce.
Machines rolled around in the 18th century. Work that took painstaking hours and many people to complete was slowly transforming into something that one individual with the right tool could perform alone, and took far less time.
With the expanse of agricultural mechanization. A greater variety of crops became available, these crops were more robust than the ones that came before. These crops were able, to some degree, resist seasonal conditions for example when water was scarce.
We then come to the age that we are currently living in, the “Digital Age”. The almost exponential growth of technology has meant that even very old industries like agriculture stand to benefit. Most changes associated with this era are built on how information has become democratised and easily accessible.
What we will be looking at are how some forms of technology paired with agriculture have benefited farmers. This won’t be a look at cutting edge stuff that most farmers won’t be able to afford. We will look at how affordable means of connectivity and technology that has a relatively low barrier of entry have improved “Agricultural Value Chains“
What has the digital age done for agriculture?
Well one term that has become in vogue is “digitising agricultural value chains”. So what does this mean?
Value Chain – the process or activities by which a company adds value to an article, including production, marketing, and the provision of after sale services
So in terms of agriculture the term means pretty much means the same, with the exception that this term usually refers to those working in agricultural development in the “developing world”. It should also be said that there is no agreed upon definition of the term “Agricultural Value Chain”.
So digitising agricultural value chains means that within the steps between production to sale, there are elements that can be enhanced by a form of computer technology. A number of times discussions around these issues seem complex and technical but hey it could be important to just take a look at how simple technology we take for granted has already made a difference to this most basic industry.
Which parts of the agricultural value chain have been digitised?
The steps from preproduction to sale in agriculture and how technology has aided are as follows:
This is where farmers plan what they are going to plant in relation to the season or maybe the farmer is venturing into a new crop.
Farmers have coalesced in various social media like forming WhatsApp groups where they can share expertise and knowledge.
There are a number of resources available on social media and on the broader internet that help farmers plan for the upcoming season. Examples of this are Facebook Groups like ‘Cattle Farmers of Zimbabwe’ and ‘Ignite Farmers Zimbabwe.’
Companies like Seed Co for example, offer material online about soil make up and planting timelines. There is also an application called Kurima Mari that offers information for farmers to boost production. The application is said to work offline, which means farmers won’t always need data to use it. It could be useful in the planning stage of a new season.
Meteorological forecasting is also a tool that has moved from the television and radio to smartphones. Farmers can, to some degree, anticipate what the coming season will bring. This is however not something that is exact, and there are areas and conditions in a forecast that could have outcomes that don’t follow projections.
After the selection of what will be planted and when, inputs need to be gathered. They include seed, pesticides, fertilizer, soil, water testing etc. Inputs could also include farm machinery, for example renting tractors, ridgers, ploughs, planters, boom sprayers and more.
Technology has made it possible for farmers to access markets for inputs. A farmer can gather relevant information about seeds or chemicals before they commit money. This information can be found through social media, WhatsApp groups, between individual farmers or looking up seed or chemical companies that operate in Zimbabwe.
It isn’t uncommon for members from organizations like DDF (District Development Fund) to be in some of these social media and WhatsApp groups.
Information about outcomes of these products can as well be accessed through social media and messaging services. Experienced farmers can lend a hand to new and up and coming farmers on which products they recommend. Reviews from other farmers are invaluable, and they may also have tips and tricks to get the most out of a product.
Sharing machinery is also something that technology has made a little more efficient. Farmers, through social media and messaging services, can advertise farm implements that they want to rent or lend to other farmers. An innovation in this field is Cassava Agritech’s EcoFarmer which last year announced the launch of an implement sharing platform. Another app is AgriShare which is similar to EcoFarmer, but unlike Ecofarmer Agrishare can’t be accessed through USSD.
Beyond sharing implements, farmers who specialise in animal husbandry can also make use of platforms technology has made available to consult on stock feed, veterinary services, loan or exchange studs for breeding.
This follows most of the previous stages. Changes that can happen mid season are things that a new or even seasoned farmer can now through technology receive more immediate assistance with.
Meteorological data here is crucial, and this is something that can be shared through social media platforms or on the internet. Farmers don’t only have to rely on traditional media.
Post harvest and storage
When a farmer ventures into the production of a new crop there is obviously a learning curve that comes with it. The best way to mitigate loss and damage to the crop (when it is stored) is to consult other farmers who have experience with that crop. Seed producers are also a wealth of knowledge, and they can, through devices, be reached for such concerns.
This isn’t only limited to new farmers, even seasoned farmers, can experience pests that they may have not anticipated for when their harvest is stored. The availability of other farmers on cost effective mobile platforms means that they can get assistance from a neighbour, get helped by someone out of the area, consult a company’s online resources or contact the company directly.
Transport for produce and access to markets
Technology has made it so that a farmer can compare transport services with a little more efficiency. Again affordable mobile platforms make it easier for farmers to get in contact with transport operators. In the event that a farmer doesn’t know who to contact, information can be shared through mobile devices through groups or individual contact.
This to some degree ensures that farmers can plan accordingly and can change plans in the event of one or both parties not being able to meet the commitment. Farmers can also collaborate to share a single transporter in order to minimise cost.
Accessing markets is also something that through technology farmers can do well in advance, even in the planning stage. The information was usually distributed through traditional media (TV, radio and newspapers). Now when tobacco auction floors for example, release dates for when farmers can bring their produce, that information quickly spreads through social media and messaging apps.
Farmers unfamiliar with a certain company or process can more readily access information from the company directly or consult social media groups or other farmers for their experiences with the process. Sometimes what a company says isn’t what a farmer will meet, it’s always good to have as much information as possible in order to plan effectively, and to minimise any loss of time and resources.
This has been made all the more convenient by the advent of mobile money. This doesn’t only refer to when the product reaches the market. Payment for implements, inputs and services can now be done from where the farmer may be.
Farmers can, for example, contact an outlet to ask about what they have in stock or what that farmer needs specifically. They can purchase the product while on the farm and then use a receipt that the company can send them or the transaction reference number to redeem their inputs at a later time or date.
This saves a lot of time for farmers. A simple process that may have required visiting an outlet becomes something they can do in a relatively short period of time and remotely.
Mobile money has also made it easier for small to medium scale farmers to transact in Zimbabwe. The shortages of physical money have meant that they at least have an alternative. Farmers are also consumers of other goods and services and as consumers, the benefit of the payments revolution has come to them too.