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Digital Farm - digitising tools to empower farmers with information about their farms

Applying sensors to farming tools that will aggregate and relay accurate, timely and life-changing information to farmers’ mobile phones.

Photo of Sylvia Ng'eno
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EXPLAIN YOUR IDEA

Isolated farmers do not have access to information needed to respond to persistent challenges. Even basic information, such as harvest size or income are not accurately or honestly recorded. The dearth of reliable data can lead to various inefficiencies and food loss across the supply chain as farmers cannot adequately respond to changing climates, price volatility, fluctuations on the market and failed harvests. We recognise that those with data have knowledge and power, so we want to put that power in the hands of farmers. Using the concept of the ‘Internet of Things’ we are equipping everyday local farming tools with sensors that will relay accurate, timely and life-changing information to farmers’ mobile phones. In its simplest form, our prototype uses this principle to relay accurate measurements from the weight of crops, using 3G networks, to farmers’ mobile phones. In initial prototyping, information sent to phones is relatively straightforward. However, we have begun collaborating with farmers to develop an easy to administer dashboard and interface that allows farmers to analyse and share complex data sets. As the breadth and scope of the data increases, our technology will begin to aggregate information from various farmers and disperse this information across the network; enabling farmers to crowdsource information and learn more from their peers and decrease food loss in both pre- and post-harvest seasons.

WHO BENEFITS?

Digital Farm benefits smallholders by offering them timely & accurate information about their farms and offers young people in rural communities, skills and employment opportunities developing the technology. The data generated will also be of use to producer organisations and stakeholders from across the supply chain. Aggregated data will provide useful data on markets, climate and productivity that can enable these organisations to respond to current challenges as well predict future trends.

WHERE WILL YOUR IDEA BE IMPLEMENTED?

Digital Farm is initially focussed on collaborating with producer partners in Kenya. However, over time we will scale Digital Farm up to offer this technology to smallholders across our network in East Africa, Latin America and beyond.

ARE YOU IMPLEMENTING IN AN ELIGIBLE COUNTRY?

  • Yes

EXPERTISE IN SECTOR

  • I’ve worked in a sector related to my idea for over a year

EXPERIENCE IN IMPLEMENTATION COUNTRY(IES)

  • Yes, for more than one year.

TELL US MORE ABOUT YOU!

I am a proud daughter of a rural Kenyan tea farmer working with Cafedirect Producers’ Foundation (CPF): a farmer-led organisation of 280,000 smallholders, which promotes existing farmer knowledge to create sustainable solutions to the challenges they face.

IS THIS IDEA NEW FOR YOU OR YOUR ORGANIZATION?

CPF was established as an organisation led by smallholder producers, for smallholder producers. We’ve seen first-hand the wealth of experience, knowledge & expertise which exists in underserved rural farming communities. Therefore, our focus is on creating opportunities for smallholders to share, build upon & strengthen this knowledge. In order to achieve this, we combine peer-to-peer & in-person solutions with technologically based, digital solutions. Our global network of Centres of Excellence (check out our video above) provide space, funding & farmer-led expertise for smallholders to test, develop & share innovative farming methods face-to-face with their peers. To compliment this we have set-up a peer-to-peer communications platform - now launched as WeFarm, an independent social enterprise - which enables smallholder farmers to crowdsource solutions from a global community. Digital Farm complements this by providing a further community of farmers and supporting our wider aim of developing digital tools, promote farmer-led data collection and empower farmers with information that can help improve on-farm productivity, market access, & financial inclusion.

HOW IS YOUR IDEA UNIQUE?

Data is often extracted from the world’s poorest communities by researchers, NGOs & companies. Yet rarely are the data shared with communities on the ground, leading to mistrust about how data is used. This lack of transparency also means that the available data is not used to its maximum potential. Mobile-based technologies have proven to be a great way to combat this, unfortunately many existing systems are dependent on specific service providers, tailored to farmers producing specific crops or dependent on farmers having access to smartphones and/or wireless. This prevents the vast majority of smallholders, who often have only basic SMS phones, from participating. Digital Farm is unique as it: 1 gives farmers access to their own data 2 is not dependent on a specific mobile provider 3 does not require wireless (just 3G) 4 is rooted in using locally available tools & regular farming systems 5 is accessible to all farmers Our model of farmer-led design has allowed us to choose the right hardware, conduct robust user-testing & have a strong understanding of local contexts, all of which we see as paramount for long-term success and sustainability.

WHO WILL IMPLEMENT THIS IDEA?

We are working with proactive youth groups from farming communities in Kenya to develop our prototype & extend the potential of Digital Farm. These young people are using their knowledge & passion for technology to work closely with farmers to explore further relevant applications for this technology. They will also participate in data science training, bringing relevant expertise & knowledge of trends in Big Data, as well as supporting in rolling out final prototype & user-ready products.

HOW HAS YOUR IDEA CHANGED BECAUSE OF BENEFICIARY FEEDBACK?

Feedback on our User Experience Map has confirmed that our approach will be successful in equipping farmers with critical data needed to make decisions. Farmers welcomed our low-cost & accessible prototype, dependent on a readily available farming tools, as opposed to high-tech & expensive external systems. Farmers were receptive to the idea of using SMS based mobile technology to retrieve this information (with a very high proportion of farmers owning phones) & excited about the idea of a simple, quick & safe way to keep records to improve efficiency of their farms. Their main concerns were centered around the affordability & usability of the final products. Which resonates with our farmer-led design model, in which farmers will be involved in the development and testing of the products at every stage - including consulting on appropriate prices. From feedback, the main change that we will need to make is to increase our emphasis on finding ways to link this system up to markets. Although farmers recognise the need for improving on-farm productivity - they emphasised the importance of information in helping them find markets to sell & get the best prices for their products.

WHAT ARE SOME OF YOUR UNANSWERED QUESTIONS ABOUT THIS IDEA?

There are a number of assumptions that are project is still running under, as we develop Digital Farm we will need to answer the following questions: - can the products be made affordable enough? - will famers take up the tools? - will data and technology training be relevant for youth groups? - is the technology sufficiently replicable to work at scale? - can the tools maintain their roots in locally available - even at scale? - there is a sufficient demand to work at scale (commercially viable) - tech literacy is widespread (amongst men, women and vulnerable groups) We will bear these questions in mind as we work closely with farmers to develop Digital Farm.

WHY DO YOU THINK THE PROBLEM YOUR IDEA SOLVES FOR HASN'T BEEN SOLVED YET?

Although IoT tech is spreading rapidly and bringing benefits to users across the world, it is over-reliant on the user to have access to smartphone or internet technology. This is primarily because IoT tech is mainly focussed on developing solutions for an end-user in urban settings or developed contexts. Any products designed for smallholders have taken this similar model and have focussed on providing top-down technologies dependent on external tools or equipment. Therefore, we see the farmer-led design approach that is being realised in the development of Digital Farm, as offering an opportunity to create a truly affordable and accessible product rooted in locally available tools.

WHAT WOULD YOU ULTIMATELY LIKE TO ACHIEVE WITH THIS IDEA? WHAT IS YOUR NEXT STEP TO GET THERE?

Digital Farm is the start of a process putting the power of data into the hands of smallholders. We are aiming to build the capacity of households, communities and systems to mitigate, recover from, and thrive in the face of shocks and stresses; reducing chronic vulnerability and enabling inclusive growth. Data provided by Digital Farm will be accompanied & strengthened by farmer-led data systems supporting access to information that can increase production, market access & financial inclusion.

MEMBERS OF MY TEAM HAVE BEEN WORKING TOGETHER FOR:

  • More than a year

MY INTENDED BENEFICIARIES ARE:

  • Within in 500 km of where our team does most of its work

MY ORGANIZATION'S OPERATING BUDGET FOR 2015 WAS:

  • Between $500,000 and $1,000,000

The Challenge

Isolated farmers do not have access to information needed to respond to persistent challenges. Even basic information, such as harvest size or income are not accurately or honestly recorded. Our work with farmers has pinpointed the following areas in which farmers are lacking vital data:

  • Production Data - particularly important for responding to environmental changes and preventing food loss in pre- and post-harvest seasons
  • Logistics Data - critical for avoiding food spoilage by accessing markets for products and ensuring transport logistics
  • Agricultural Information - for low cost, innovation practices suitable for increasing yields and managing pests


The above challenges highlight how the dearth of reliable data can lead to various inefficiencies and food loss across the supply chain as farmers cannot adequately respond to changing climates, price volatility, fluctuations on the market and failed harvests.

The absence of reliable data in farming communities is not due to it not being collected. Data is being constantly extracted from the world’s poorest communities by researchers, NGOs and commercial companies, all seeking to evidence the impact of their interventions. Yet rarely are the the data or any recommendations from its analysis shared with communities on the ground, leading to mistrust about how data is used. This lack of transparency also means that the available data is not used to its maximum potential; to create efficient, resilient and sustainable farms that are minimising waste, increasing yields and accessing relevant markets for their crops.

Our Solution

We recognise that those with data have knowledge and power, so we want to put that power in the hands of farmers. Using the concept of the ‘Internet of Things’, we are equipping local farming tools with sensors that relay data over 3G networks to farmers’ mobile phones.

Why mobile?

Technology - particularly mobile-based technology - has been proven to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of agrifood value chains and agricultural activities. ICT tools continue to improve efficiency for smallholder farmers globally. Unfortunately, many mobile-based technologies are dependent on specific service providers or are tailored to farmers producing specific crops. Furthermore, new tech is increasingly dependent on farmers having access to smartphones and/or wireless, preventing the vast majority of smallholders, who often have only basic SMS phones, from participating. 

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Digital Farm is unique, however, as it:

1 - is not dependent on a specific mobile provider

2 - does not require wireless (just 3G networks),

3 - is rooted in using locally available tools embedded in daily farming systems,

4 - is accessible to all farmers.


This is because our model of farmer-led design has allowed us to choose the right hardware, conduct robust user-testing and have a strong understanding of local contexts, all of which we see as paramount for long-term success and sustainability.

The prototype

Working closely with farmers in rural communities we have tested, developed and prototyped this technology with a crop weighing scale. This prototype detects the weight of object and relays this straight to the farmer’s basic mobile phone , giving them a record of the weight of a given crop. This information can be applied cumulatively so that knowledge of the actual weight of their entire harvests can be relayed and stored. This also gives farmers an accurate reading to combat discrepancies at the weighing centres as well as an opportunity to track payments. provide digital receipts and plot harvest records over time.


What next?

The majority of the smallholder farmers in Africa are on average over the age of 60. Many ageing smallholder farmers are uninterested in adopting new technical innovation, and many of the young people, who possess the technical skills and entrepreneurial spirit critical to the agricultural sector’s future, do not see agriculture as a viable livelihood and many leave rural communities in search of greater opportunities.

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However, with Digital Farm we have begun working with proactive youth groups from farming communities in Kenya to develop our prototype further and extend the potential of Digital Farm. These young people are using their knowledge and passion for technology to work closely with farmers and transform additional tools into data-collection vehicles. Tools such as livestock tags to track animal health, transportation analysis to assess market accessibility, and irrigation systems to ensure crop survival, will be developed further and our model of farmer-led design will help assess current systems to determine further, relevant applications for this technology.

What Impact does this have?

User-testing and focus groups with farmers has confirmed that our approach will be successful in equipping farmers with critical data needed to make decisions. Farmers welcomed our low-cost and accessible prototype, dependent on a readily available farming tools, as opposed to high-tech and expensive external systems.

By rolling out this prototype to further farming tools, farmers will be able to have a wide variety of data about their farms, enabling them to:

  • build resilience to climate change and pests - leading to a decrease in incidents of harvest loss
  • have access to farming information to increase overall yields, quality and decrease post-harvest food loss
  • be able to analyse their productivity and assess trends over time to make more informed decisions
  • explore market trends - increasing their access to relevant markers and ensuring they can find a relevant market for their produce.

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Photo of William Lanier
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To help the shortlisted ideas become the best that they can be I am interested to know…
Is Digital Farm for dry or wet crops? I have to guess dry high calorie grain is one focus, as grains feed most of the human labor and animal power needed to produce densely nutritious fruit, vegetables and meat and so “many current calls for innovation refer specifically to staple grains” (Devex, 2016).
If this is true what are the proposed technologies that will enable Digital Farm to collect accurate weight of grain that is dependent on moisture content?
It is important to test grain moisture content with an accurate meter.
Accurate meters have a certificate. A Ghana Standards Authority certificate states that the meter consistently met or exceeded standards for recognizing moisture content and then indicates what calibration settings match Scientific Oven tests. Although pioneering development (FAO, 2015) groups list them, Bite and Salt
moisture tests are not certifiable. Neither of these tests requires expensive equipment but neither is certified because they are very subjective and error prone.
William
Jobs for Youth to Reverse PHL 

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