Drones used to map the boundaries of fields and monitor plant health, ground sensors to measure soil moisture levels, air temperature and humidity to prevent crop diseases, digital apps to provide farmers with localized weather forecasts, market price information and agricultural advice—these are just some examples of an emerging rural development trend called digital agriculture.
Assuming different guises (‘digital agriculture’, ‘smart farming’, ‘climate-smart agriculture’, ‘precision agriculture’), digital technologies and ICTs have started to penetrate the agricultural sector in the Global South in the past few years. Africa, with more than 60 per cent of the population employed in the rural sector and relatively low agricultural yields, has become the main target of this ‘development’ strategy. For some, this is ‘the new Green Revolution’, an opportunity which Africa, having failed to seize before, cannot afford to miss this time.
These technologies, however, are not without concerns and limitations. Our ongoing research on digital agriculture in Africa draws out some of the hidden dimensions of the digitalization agenda, showing that we need to be aware of the risk that digital agriculture – when implemented without critical debate – might primarily benefit tech companies and multinational input providers, rather than smallholders or the environment. In the next section, therefore, the purported benefits of digital agriculture are discussed, along with some concerns.
Most proponents of digitalization in agriculture—governments, international donors, development agencies, and high-tech companies—convey the idea that it represents a triple-win solution which could be used to ‘feed’ a rapidly growing population while at the same time reducing rural poverty levels and mitigating the environmental impact of farming.
In terms of food security, digital and mobile technologies promise to deliver better yields and reduced losses arising from bad crop management. The rural poor will purportedly benefit from better market integration from being able to sell their product at higher prices, for example by being able to guarantee the traceability and origin of the product or to reduce the time between crop harvesting and selling, therefore enabling a shift toward more perishable (and profitable) crops (Asad 2016). In addition, the environment would benefit from a reduction in the use of pesticides and wasteful irrigation practices. Nevertheless, the mechanisms that enable achieving such promises remain a ‘black box’.
Digital agriculture seems to be first of all an appealing business opportunity for companies. According to some recent estimations, the market for precision and digital farming products has been growing at 12% per year and is expected to reach €10 billion by 2025.
‘Big tech’ players like Microsoft, Google, IBM, Alibaba, as well as big agribusiness companies like Bayer, Syngenta and John Deere have started to move into the market by making preliminary acquisitions, forging partnerships, and developing new products. In 2013, for example, Monsanto bought the Climate Corporation, a data analytics company specialized in weather forecasting technologies, for US$1.1 million.
The most intuitive effect of digital innovations in agriculture is an increased food production that would boost farmers’ income. A better reach of agricultural extension services and real-time information (for example regarding short-term weather conditions or market prices), combined with improved access to high-quality inputs and the reduction of losses due to unexpected weather events or bad pest management, are believed to allow small farmers to improve agricultural output both in terms of quantity and quality.
Post-harvest losses could also be reduced with the improved monitoring of storage conditions. Additionally, an increasing ability of smallholder farmers to sell to larger markets by allowing buyers to track crops to source (certification and provenance) would allow countries and governments to achieve food security targets due to the much wider availability of lower-cost and more nutritious food products.
In mainstream discourses, smallholder farmers are considered the main target of such digital innovation policies. In terms of poverty reduction, easier access to credit and improved traceability of agricultural products, together with better integration into the supply value chain, are believed to eventually increase selling prices and consequently boost smallholder income, therefore contributing to lifting people out of rural poverty. Aker et al. (2016) found, however, that there is limited evidence to support this claim and that farmers do not always manage to sell their products at higher prices when making use of digital market information systems.
In order to make the services economically affordable, one of the solutions offered resides in the ‘Facebook model’: a digital platform collects farmers’ data and gets revenues from using and/or selling this data. In exchange, the users don’t pay (see for example this post). In this way data becomes the ‘exchange good’ with which the farmer effectively pays for the services provided by the company. This opens questions related to data ownership and which arrangements can be put in place to protect farmers’ sensitive data.
In the end, market and economic considerations seem to prevail, so far, over concerns about sustainability and environmental change. A recent report by the Technical Center for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA) in Wageningen states that “hard evidence of the impact of [such innovations] on climate resilience has yet to emerge”.
The main climate change-related use case so far seems to be the highly localized weather forecasts, combined with the fact that “by increasing their productivity, [they] can help farmers earn additional income needed to invest in adapting to climate change”. Similarly, for the FAO “the effectiveness of these tools for advancing sustainability goals is unknown”. What are the real implications for the environment, then?
From a socio-cultural point of view, there are other aspects that need to be taken into account. Agricultural knowledge transfer is a highly social process based on ‘on-field’ experience: human-to-human interaction might not be easily reduced to blocks of data analyzed by external algorithms (see for example Stone 2010). Also, what Friends of the Earth in a recent position paper calls the ‘erosion of tacit knowledge’ must not be overlooked: the risk is that delegating all farm-management decisions to an ‘expert app’ would reduce farmers’ autonomy and lock them into a dependency relationship with data analytics companies. Last, the lack of infrastructure, the ‘digital divide’ between urban and rural areas, and the high costs of telecommunication services in some countries represent obstacles which should be overcome before digital agriculture would be able to deliver the promised benefits for the rural poor.
In conclusion, the potential of the digitalization of agriculture in Africa to contribute food security, poverty reduction and environmental sustainability agendas still requires a proper assessment based on empirical evidence. More research is required in order to go beyond initial overoptimistic accounts and to facilitate the bridging of local barriers and yet unknown or unexpected effects.