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Tap and grow

Molly E Brown of the University of Maryland and 6th Grain Global, Singapore, describes a new ICT tool that can help farmers use big data to respond to changing climatic and market conditions.

There are more than 570 million farmers in the world, with family farms cultivating over 75% of all land[1]. The food produced by these farmers is critical to both their food security and rural economic development in the coming decades. Local agricultural production is determined by the amount and quality of both arable land and agricultural inputs (fertiliser, seeds, pesticides, etc.), as well as the farm-related technology, practices and access to market of farmers. If yields continue to grow more slowly than the number of people living on farms, parts of Africa, Asia and Central and Southern America will experience substantial declines in food availability in coming decades, which may lead to increased food insecurity[2].

Digital agriculture tools and services, delivered through mobile devices, should improve farmers’ access to high value agricultural inputs and rapid and efficient purchasers of the goods they produce. Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) will be part of the fundamental transformation of the agriculture sector. The agriculture value chain will be simplified significantly with technology playing a major role at every step, from logistics of input provisions to just-in-time delivery of produce to consumers. The internet, mobile phones, and related technologies that facilitate the collection, storage, analysis and sharing of data and information are changing many aspects of life among a large and growing share of the world’s population. Even among the poorest 20% in low income countries, 70% have access to mobile phones, more than have access to improved sanitation or electricity in their homes[3]. The internet, mobile phones and related technologies that facilitate the collection, storage, analysis and sharing of data and information are changing many aspects of life among a large and growing share of the world’s population.

Climate change is likely to transform the predictability of the start, characteristics and end of the growing season in every agricultural region. Responding to these changes in climate will require access to a wider variety of seeds, increased responsiveness to disease and pest pressure, and attention to nutrient management.

Farmers and agribusinesses make innumerable decisions every year, agriculture has been an obvious target for big data approaches. Big data can help farmers make critical farming decisions in response to changing climate and market conditions. It has been a key driver of the progress made in precision agriculture in high income markets, whereby farmers and agribusinesses are using the resources at their disposal in the most efficient way possible to achieve maximum yields. This has been the secret to the enormously successful business model of

software companies, such as Monsanto’s Climate Corporation and FarmLogs in the United States and Cropio in Europe. ICTs can provide high quality, mobile, indispensable tools for farmers around the world and then apply big data analytics to aggregate farmers’inputs, connect farmers directly to consumers and transform the value chain.

Expansion of mobile connectivity

The foundation of this transformation is mobile connectivity. By the end of 2016, two thirds of the world's population had a mobile phone subscription - a total of 4.8 billion unique subscribers. Half of these connections were from smartphones[3]. The arrival of highly connected, web-enabled mobile technologies into the households of billions of individuals around the world provides an opportunity to completely disrupt the way the global agriculture system is organised. The objective of digital agriculture is to create new ways for farmers to identify and purchase high quality agricultural goods and to improve access to traders, wholesalers, restaurants and individuals needing raw agricultural goods. Just as Facebook and Amazon have transformed the way we buy books and consume news articles, digital agriculture systems can transform the way farmers decide which crops to plant, which seeds and other inputs to buy, and who to sell their produce to.

Mobile technology, availability and access to weather data, remote sensing and agricultural modelling are sufficiently well developed to disrupt the current status quo of the agriculture and food industries.

The demand for food across the world will continue to grow, providing new opportunities for technology that leads to improved farm management and increased productivity. Demand for cereals, for both food and animal feed, is projected to reach some 3 billion tonnes by 2050, up from today’s nearly 2.1 billion tonnes. The demand for other food products that are more responsive to higher incomes in the developing countries (such as meat and dairy products, vegetable oils) will grow much faster than that for cereals.

Ninety percent of the growth in crop production globally between now and 2050 is expected to come from higher yields and increased cropping intensity, with the remainder coming from land expansion. Arable land could expand by some 70 million ha (less than 5%), with the expansion in developing countries by about 120 million ha (12%) being offset by a decline of some 50 million ha (8%) in developed countries[4]. Almost all new cropland expansion in developing countries will take place in sub-Saharan Africa and South America.

The potential to raise crop yields in regions with large gaps between current and potential yields, even with the existing technologies, is considerable. Provided the appropriate socio-economic incentives are in place, there are still ample ‘bridgeable’ gaps in yield (i.e. the difference between agro-ecologically attainable and actual yields) that could be exploited. ICTs are focused on supplying the tools for farmers of all sizes to increase access to agriculture inputs that will help farmers close the gap between actual and potential yields. There are four different ways that information delivered through ICTs can affect outcomes for farmers:

• Short-term information that comes directly to farmers can be used to affect day-to-day decisions, such as whether to apply fertiliser, or when to bring goods to market. This kind of information can be either formal or informal and can be quantitative or descriptive, depending on its source. Examples are weather forecasts, market prices, availability or location of pasture for grazing of livestock, or the availability of less expensive transportation options.

• Short-term information that is mediated through an institution or through formal processes or structures. This includes the farmers’ rights, government services, or agriculture subsidies that can be obtained during the growing season.

• Long-term information that comes directly to farmers to strengthen the livelihood assets of the farmer or community. This includes agricultural extension, information on agriculture technology, such as drought-resistant maize varieties or the availability of disease-free yam shoots, access to fair trade initiatives or channels that encourage the participation in markets by poor farmers.

• Long-term information that is mediated by institutions or governments that can improve farmer incomes or livelihoods, such as the location of education, health services, training, microfinance, insurance or other programmes that are organised and provided by institutions, be they private or public[5].

A major challenge for ICTs in agriculture is their sustainability and their ability to meet their stated goals and objectives. If information is mediated through an institution, then the design of the system should be different than if its goal is to provide information that can be used directly by the farmer. All mobile applications need to be supported as technology and the ways people use it changes rapidly, with both software and hardware changing through time. To be sustainable, an application needs to evolve as its users’ needs evolve and to provide sufficient benefit to the farmer to ensure a high adoption rate and actual use, as well as to the developer and others involved in its production and support. Many ICTs being developed for low income countries today are either not used widely or fail to have a sustainable business model for their developers beyond donor funding[6].

Mobile technology, availability and access to weather data, remote sensing and agricultural modelling are sufficiently well developed to disrupt the current status quo of the agriculture and food industries.’

ICTs for small farmers in low income communities

Figure 1 Digitising a field using Google Earth as a base

ICTs start with the farmer. By knowing the location of farmers’ fields, the crop and variety planted and the management strategy used in a field, they can support decisions and improve the profitability of farming businesses. Farmers can digitise their fields, enabling them to take notes online, receive high resolution satellite imagery of crop health, weather and disease alerts all in one place. Mobile agriculture tools can be designed to work just as well for small farmers in Africa and Asia as they do for large commercial farmers in the United States, Europe and Russia. Mobile ICTs can transform how farmers access information and services.

Online and mobile applications can allow farmers to efficiently manage their farm and finances by providing easy access to geospatial data and models to increase access to services and improve farm profitability.

An example of an innovative, new ICT is 6th Grain Global’s FieldFocus, which is an online and mobile tool developed for farmers to digitise their fields and get information about crop health and weather (Figure 1). Through an innovative user interface, FieldFocus allows the user to digitise their fields in the system using a simple online interface, where farmers search a Google Maps image for their community, identify their field and click the mouse along the borders of each field that they manage.

Farmers with limited internet access or limited computer literacy can have their fields digitised by an extension agent, retailer, community leader or by 6th Grain itself.

After adding information about crop planted, variety, start and end dates for the current season and previous years’ yields, FieldFocus then delivers satellite imagery that allows a farmer to visualise how his

Figure 2: Every digitised field has an accurate area calculated, which when combined with farmer-provided production information, will allow for high quality in-season yield estimates updated every day.

crop is doing across a single field. FieldFocus provides weather information, agronomic recommendations, field scouting imagery and daily crop yield estimates. The tool connects farmer information to geospatial data and models. Farmers can upgrade the level of services they receive to improve farm profitability. FieldFocus provides easy outreach mechanisms allowing the farmer to receive agronomic recommendations, field scouting data, and daily crop yield estimates (Figure 2).

By working across all levels of farm commercialisation, 6th Grain can bring digital tools and information on inputs and off-take to all farmers, regardless of their farm size or capabilities (Figure 3). The tool allows farmers to track their fields and their crop's progress throughout the season using high resolution remote sensing-derived indices:

• Plant health is an index of vegetation that is related to crop biomass and canopy closure.

• Relative health index displays relative vegetation of field areas in comparison with a selected calibration point of the field.

Figure 3: How ICTs can improve the output and profit of farmers

New imagery is acquired every 3-5 days and provided to the farmer without regard to field size or location around the world. Once this imagery is posted, the farmer is notified, drawing him or her to the application several times per week. FieldFocus is a full-feature mobile farm management tool intended to be used by farmers in countries across Africa, Asia and Europe with highly varying field sizes and management approaches. Farmers learn from each other across multiple crops and income levels.

Features of FieldFocus include:

• Exact area calculations for each field, improving yield estimates for all farmers

• Online farmer notebook that is maintained year after year and always accessible

• Daily in-season yield updates depending on crop health, weather and inputs

• Disease alarms for common crop diseases for that crop and location

• Daily weather information

• Management calendar with ‘alerts’ for today’s activities across all fields

• Crop health alerts based on high resolution satellite imagery for large fields (over 5 hectares)

• Income calculators to determine the value of different crop inputs on overall farm income

• Off-season crop planner including logistics and purchasing guide for inputs, automatically calculating exact quantities of crop inputs for each variety being planted.

Future releases of FieldFocus will include a ‘shopping cart’ that will calculate for the farmer exactly how much seed, fertiliser and crop protection is required for each field and crop variety planned. This is enabled by extremely accurate field size information, details about where the farmer is located, and options for purchasing these products. Working with agribusinesses, this field can be populated with seed management protocols, amended by weather and management strategy of the farmer (low, medium or high inputs applied and level of mechanisation). Introducing mobile-based logistics into small, non-commercial agriculture regions can reduce transaction and transportation costs, a significant barrier to improved market functioning in many low income regions[7]. Aggregating this information over thousands of registered farmers in a market, allows calculation of commission on these products, and helps reduce logistics and transportation costs to both the farmer and to the producer of the products.

Table 1 Benefits of ICTs to different groups in the agriculture sector

Molly Elizabeth Brown, PhD, Associate Research Professor, Department of Geographical Sciences, University of Maryland, College Park, MD 20742, and Chief Science Officer, 6th Grain Global Private Limited, 391B, Orchard Road #23-01, Ngee

Ann City Tower B, Singapore 238874. Formerly with NASA.

Tel: 703-855-6190 Email: Web:


1. S. K. Lowder, J. Skoet, and T. Raney, “The Number, Size, and Distribution of Farms, Smallholder Farms, and Family Farms Worldwide,” World Dev., vol. 87, pp. 16–29, Nov. 2016.

2. C. Funk and M. E. Brown, “Declining Global Per Capital Agricultural Capacity and Warming Oceans Threaten Food Security,” Food Secur. J., vol. 1, no. 3, pp. 271–289, 2009.

3. GSMA, “The Mobile Economy 2017,” London, UK, 2017.

4. P. Tittonell and K. E. Giller, “When yield gaps are poverty traps: The paradigm of ecological intensification in African smallholder agriculture,” F. Crop. Res., vol. 143, pp. 76–90, 2013.

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6. C. I. Pade, B. Mallinson, and D. Sewry, “An exploration of the categories associated with ICT project sustainability in rural areas of developing countries: A case study of the Dwesa project,” in Proceedings of the 2006 annual research conference of the South African institute of computer scientists and information technologists on IT research in developing countries, 2006, pp. 100–106.

7. C. B. Barrett, M. E. Bachke, M. F. Bellemare, H. C. Michelson, S. Narayanan, and T. F. Walker, “Smallholder Participation in Contract Farming: Comparative Evidence from Five Countries,” World Dev., vol. 40, no. 4, pp. 715–730, 2012.

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