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Integrated risk management for smallholder farming

Plot level remote sensing for managing crop failure risks of smallholder farming

Photo of Heejae Cho
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Written by

Lead Applicant Organization Name

Viridis RS Ltd.

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Small company (under 50 employees)

Website of Legally Registered Entity

How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?

  • 1-3 years

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?


Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?


Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?

Busoga region

What country is your selected Place located in?


Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

We found the region through a local INGO office that is focused on helping small farmers increase their income and manage their risks. We are currently planning a full season pilot where we will collect weekly aerial data along with ground truth data on what the farmers are growing and what their yields are. The rains there have been inconsistent lately, adding yet another source of risk to the farmers' already uncertain livelihoods. The potential is huge for a novel insurance product to make a big difference in the farmers' lives. The presence of a trusted partner in the community makes it a great place to develop that insurance product. 

Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.

The majority of visitors to the Busoga region arrive first in Jinja... a sleepy town on Lake Victoria which has turned into an adventure tourist destination as the Source of the Nile. Two hydroelectric dams on the Nile River have impacted the adventure industry, but not brought the prosperity for the town that was promised.

Heading north from Jinja on the main highway, the landscape turns almost instantly rural... acres of sugarcane and maize fields alternate with stands of tall eucalyptus, palm, or other trees on the undulating hills under bright sunny skies. Occasionally, the highway is flanked by low brick buildings housing shops and commercial businesses, with the residential parts of villages stretching back away from the main thoroughfare. Leaving that thoroughfare means navigating rutted, red dirt roads up through the trees and between farm fields. Motorcycles are more effective than cars here, and so you see them everywhere ridden alone and ferrying passengers. Houses are mostly of mud bricks made from the same color dirt as the road, loosely spaced through each village, often surrounded by trees offering shade and a slight respite from the warm daytime temperatures. Some farm produce (coffee berries or threshed grain) sits on a tarp, drying in the open, sunny spot away from the house. Often, at least one adult and a handful of children work, play, or rest in the yard. The women wear brightly colored wraps or dresses with sandals, the men collared shirts with slacks and either sandals or smart shoes, and the kids shorts or dresses and bare feet.

Agriculture is central to the lives of the people living here. Banana and coffee and other crops are grown on a small scale, but maize and sugarcane are king. If a farmer has enough land and money saved up, he or she will plant sugarcane because a local sugar mill buys as much cane as farmers can grow. But sugarcane takes 18 months to mature, so it's a big investment and a long time to wait for a payout. If you can't afford to plant sugarcane, you'll grow maize, which is used to make the staple food, ugali.

Everyone is worried about the rains. Last year, people planted just after the February rains arrived, but then the rains stopped. Farmers who were lucky had "prevented sowing" insurance, which helped them buy new seeds to plant again. Others had to pay out of pocket or borrow money to re-sow. The unseasonable weather continued all year: normally there are two separate rainy seasons with two dry seasons... this year it continued to rain the entire year after the false start. So people are nervous about what this year will bring.

What is the approximate size of your Place, in square kilometers? (New question, not required)


What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?


Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.

The farmers in Busoga region lack access to insurance products to protect their crops. Changing weather patterns have already had a significant effect on farmers' profits, and will continue to increase the risk of crop failure as rainfall timing becomes more uncertain and warmer temperatures increase the risks of pests and disease.

The economics of farming in the region have been skewed by the presence of the sugar mill. Many farmers who can are planting sugarcane but the market has begun to show signs of saturation. There is even talk of policies for promoting maize cultivation, unveiling a worry that sugarcane's 18-month time to maturity will leave some farmers with an unsaleable crop which they can't even consume themselves.

A few farmers in the area are open to trying new methods, but there is a general aversion to what are viewed as risky new technologies. If a method hasn't been tried by a farmer's neighbors with success, then there is little interest for it. The small size of the farm plots allows the use of tractors for plowing, but harvesting is out of the question, so the vast majority of the work is done by hand.

As the farmers do not have any protection from crop failure, little investment into productivity is made and farmers adhere to traditional farming methods. As the plot size reduces over time with population growth, the productivity is stalling or reducing.

In 2050, the challenges of the area will be similar in nature, but broader in scope. With population growth, there will be more pressure to increase yields, but the climate will be even less predictable than it is already. Farmers managing their risks will become even more important, as will increasing their yields through the application of new technologies. Farm mechanization is still a long ways off in the Busoga region... farms in 2050 will still be small, and much of the work will be done by hand. Prices will have increased, but the anxiety around rainfall and pest attacks will be even worse.

Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.

Our Vision is to develop an aerial monitoring service that provides information to farmers as well as insurance companies, so that the insurance companies can design and sell insurance product to the farmers. 

The availability of insurance products is shown to increase productivity-enhancing investment by farmers as well as influence farmers to grow more profitable crops. Farmers will be able to take more risks and adopt better farming practices, realizing better yields. 

Regular monitoring with a multispectral camera will highlight any crop distress and identify pests and disease before they become visible to the farmers' naked eyes. Farmers will be informed of the problem and how best to address the issue. This will reduce the crop loss to pests and disease as well as limit pesticide use to the required minimum.

High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.

With better data, insurance companies will be able to protect farmers' crops, reducing the impact of future crop failures. With insurance protection and better data, banks will lend to the farmers for seeds and investments. Farmers will be able to afford fertilizers and irrigation, further reducing the risk of crop failure and increasing yields. Bank loans will be more affordable than money lenders, reducing farmers' exposure to the poverty trap.

Regular monitoring by insurance companies will detect pest and disease problems, which will be reported to the farmers with suggestions for how to solve them. Climate change will change the patterns of pests and disease, but early detection through monitoring and advice from experts will connect farmers to up-to-date agronomy practices and help them mitigate the impact.

Better data and better understanding will increase investment in the sector. Once farmers have access to loans and confidence that they will earn a living during the season, they will be able to invest in value-add production facilities. Drying areas for dried fruit and coffee, for example, can significant boost a farmer's sales price and profit, further increasing income. Local processing will also reduce spoilage, reducing waste and making the entire supply chain more efficient.

Beyond the farm, better information about what farmers are growing will enable buyers to find the farmers more easily, increasing the farmers' selling power and allowing them further leverage in the marketplace. A less risky smallholder agriculture sector will invite investment from larger companies as well - from seed producers to tractor manufacturers, expanding productivity and innovation for better food supplies.

Overall, better data for crop insurance companies and lenders will help farmers better manage the incredible risks they must take on every season, helping reduce hunger, increase prosperity, and improve livelihoods.

Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?

Farming is a risky business. Crops can be lost due to too much rain, not enough rain, pests, diseases, or wild animals trampling through the field. Such calamities may impact everyone in the village, or just a few.

Imagine, then, that you are insured based on the average yield across the village (the current state-of-the-art in smallholder crop insurance). You may have lost your crop because animals trampled through, but your neighbors are fine. There is no insurance payout, but you’ve lost half of your crop and there is not enough to feed the family, let alone save seeds for the next season.

You borrow money, but at very high interest rate from the local money lender since banks won’t lend to you. Farming is not exactly a profitable business, and the loan traps you into deeper poverty.

Because crop loss is so ruinous, few people try new seeds or techniques... it's just too risky when your family's livelihood is on the line. Even if they want to, few banks are willing to lend to farmers since there is so little information (let alone a formal credit rating) available about them. Even microfinancing companies tend to avoid farmers because of the risk.

What if a better insurance product can be designed that can respond to an individual farmer’s crop loss? That would require better information about the crop, such as the type of crop planted, area planted, and ultimate crop yield.

Once that information is available, and an insurance product is available, banks can develop credit products for the farmers since now they will know how reliable the individual farmer’s yield is and the loan can be protected from large catastrophic events such as droughts or floods.

In order to assess the crop yield, regular monitoring of the farms is required. This monitoring can also detect pest and disease problems. Climate change is causing pests and diseases to migrate to areas previously unaffected by them, where the farmers are unfamiliar with their diagnosis and treatment. For this reason, early detection of pests and diseases and being connected to agronomic experts are particularly important. Since insurance companies would already be paying for the monitoring, and the earlier a crop issue is identified the better it is for the insurance companies, they will inform the farmers of the issue and how to address the problem.

On the whole, better information will reduce the amount of risk farmers bear, increasing their productivity, enhancing investment, and therefore further boosting yield. Better yield means less hunger and more prosperity. Improving farmers’ economics cannot be done without better data and access to affordable financial products. Understanding farmers as individuals can be done with existing technologies. It’s time we put in the effort to do so.

How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?

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1 comment

Join the conversation:

Photo of Itika Gupta

Hi Heejae Cho  welcome to the Food System Vision Prize Community!
It is lovely to see your submission a submission looking at technologies to improve the efficiency of crops. How might you refine your Vision to make it an inspiration for the future versus a solution for the present?

Make sure you have reviewed your final submission through the Pocket Guide to support you through the final hours of wrapping up your submission. This will give you the most important bullet points to keep in mind to successfully submit your Vision.

Look forward to seeing your submission finalised by 31st January, 5:00 pm EST.