Sun, Apr 14, 2019 - Page 15 News List

Technology helps farmers adapt to climate threats

By Laurie Goering  /  Thomson Reuters Foundation, OXFORD, England

In India, farmers growing crops for seed company Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Co (Mahyco) receive a text message after they deliver their harvest, noting its weight and how much was usable — followed quickly by another text saying their money is in the bank.

That reliable flow of cash through their accounts means that when a farmer goes to ask for credit, the bank is much more likely to give them a loan, Mahyco director and chief technology officer Usha Barwale Zehr said.

As climate change makes farming far tougher and more young people reject it as a career, technological innovations to make the work more secure and appealing can help, agricultural specialists told the Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship in Oxford this week.

For instance, giving small-scale farmers access to the right-sized farm machinery can help reduce backbreaking labor and keep more people on the land, Zehr said.

“Farming is hard work, drudgery,” she said. “No young person wants to stay in farming if they have other options. They would rather go to the city and do something else.”

Yet, mobile phone apps that connect farmers with other rural entrepreneurs who invest in wheat combines for hire, for instance, can give farmers access to easier harvests at a low cost — and provide an income for the harvester as well.

“We’ve seen a lot of excitement from farmers for these digital applications,” Zehr said.

In Ghana, farmers struggling with worsening pest and plant-disease problems related to climate change, as well as wilder weather, can now access a call center staffed by young agronomists, Root Capital CEO Willy Foote said.

In a region without enough on-the-ground agricultural advisers, the farmers use mobile phones to receive fast advice on what to do when termites invade a field, for example, said Foote, whose nonprofit invests in such innovations.

“Agronomists can go out on a motorcycle [to visit] if needed, but 80 percent of the issues can be addressed right there,” Foote said.

Technology is also making it easier for African nations to judge what size harvest their farmers are likely to bring in, without the need for slow and costly field visits, Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) president Agnes Kalibata said.

Countries such as Rwanda used to send out analysts each season to look at 30 percent of the country’s farms — each with an average size of one-third of a hectare — to plan ahead and try to ensure an adequate food supply, said Kalibata, a former Rwandan minister of agriculture and animal resources .

Now, AGRA has partnered with Atlas AI, a Silicon Valley artificial intelligence firm, to create satellite-based “predictive analytics” for harvests in 11 African countries, including Rwanda, saving time and effort, she said.

As climate change makes harvests more unpredictable, “we need to give countries a sense of what is going to happen, how to plan,” she added.

AGRA has also worked with African countries to end the popular but volatile system of providing free internationally sourced seed to farmers, and instead support the development of private local seed distribution systems, Kalibata said.

Poorer countries are often under pressure from agribusiness to use land more efficiently by consolidating it into larger, highly mechanized farms, said Debra Dunn, who helped launch a sustainable food systems program at Stanford University called FEED Collaborative.

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