How are digital solutions adapted to meet the needs of smallholder farmers across Middle East, Africa and South Asia? Tech companies share how they’re supporting smallholder farmers to embed AI and ML in their farming practices to maintain competitiveness while coping with the pressures of climate change.

What emerging technologies can be implemented by smallholder farmers in the MEASA region to streamline their farming practices to increase both crop yields and profits?

Vineet Singh

Vineet SinghChief Technology OfficerDIGITAL GREEN: “Mobile-based information retrieval with advances in generative AI are key to increase both crop yields and profits. The most common concerns of smallholder farmers during the season is reduction in risk and cost. As mobile penetration in the community increases there are also great advances in generative AI which will enable them to pull necessary information in their own language, context, time and medium. For example, we see clear evidence in our work where we have made bots on messenger platforms which are able to take input in text, voice or image and provide the necessary information. Already, it has enabled extension agents to input the location to get optimal fertiliser based on soil acidity estimate. The big shift we are seeing that generative AI brings is to be able to digest the unstructured information about various solutions in different formats and present it in simple human understandable way.”

Eli Pollak

Eli Pollak, Founder and CEO, APOLLO AGRICULTURE: “New technology is already empowering small-scale farmers to increase their profits and farm more sustainably. The next 5 years have the potential to be very exciting as technology companies like Apollo Agriculture increasingly enable small-scale farmers to adopt new technology at scale. At Apollo, we see opportunities for farmers to adopt new technology directly – for example, improved agronomy support driven by AI or new soil fertility products – and for companies like Apollo to use technology to increase access to products that are already available to larger-scale growers – for example, AI-powered credit scoring to increase access financing.”

Faissal Sehbaoui

Faissal SehbaouiManaging DirectorAGRIEDGE: “Smallholder farmers can harness a variety of technologies to revolutionize their farming practices, resulting in increased crop yields and greater profits. These technologies encompass a wide range of innovations, including satellites and drones’ imagery, sensors, GPS, the Internet of Things (IoT), digital payment systems, biotechnology, renewable energy sources, blockchain, and farm management software and many others. At AgriEdge, we are dedicated to developing solutions that make full use of many of these cutting-edge technologies. We employ satellite and drone imagery, as well as sensors to gather data. This data is then analyzed using agronomic expertise and AI models. Then communicated as user-friendly recommendations to help farmers in their daily decision-making, covering tasks from fertilization and irrigation to phyto treatments, yield predictions, and even carbon footprint calculations. All this information is made accessible to farmers through intuitive web platforms and mobile applications.”

What are the key challenges for smallholder farmers in adopting these digital solutions and how can local governments in the region alleviate these pressures?

Faissal Sehbaoui: “Smallholder farmers face notable challenges in embracing digital solutions, primarily due to the costs associated with such technology which could be relatively high adding to that the infrastructure challenges. The lack of digital literacy in some areas makes it complicated to navigate these advanced tools. To address these concerns, local governments can play a vital role by subsidizing relevant technology and taking the lead in educational initiatives that enhance digital skills. It is crucial to develop infrastructure, especially in rural areas, so that essential resources like internet connectivity become more accessible. By implementing these measures, we can considerably reduce entry barriers and empower farmers to take full advantage of digital advancements.” 

Vineet Singh: “Accessibility to smartphones. I think the local governments play a very important role to alleviate these pressures by strengthening the extension agents both through digital as well as physical assets. The community extension workers are already on ground to reach the farmers and provide the necessary human touch to drive awareness and adoption. The local governments can help digitise their information – location, crops, area of expertise but most importantly, the conversations they have on ground with farmers. By utilising digital public infrastructure, governments can customise the experiences of extension agents and therefore farmers. Digital Green is spearheading institutionalisation of the open source software, farmstack, we have developed that acts as digital public good. We are already seeing the transformative results in some geographies like Ethiopia and Kenya. Today, the profiles of extension workers can be merged with the relevant content to power an AI assistant on messenger platform like WhatsApp and telegram. This not only helps them find answers to the relevant questions but also help government identify the gaps on what are the demands/questions of farmers and knowledge base in the content.”

What are the financial implications for smallholder farmers in the MEASA region when integrating digital solutions into their farming practices?

Faissal Sehbaoui: “The investment required to integrate digital solutions into traditional farming practices is relatively substantial, including the cost of new equipment, digital literacy training and technical maintenance. While this investment can be challenging for some smallholder farmers, the eventual return on investment through improved operational efficiency and market competitiveness is invaluable. For instance, solutions such as AquaEdge can provide up to 30% water savings. The optimised resources management provided by similar solutions results into significant cost savings and increased productivity, thus increasing revenues.”

Vineet Singh: “The main financial implications are trade-off between cost, effort, risk and price. While increasing yield is important, the prices remain subjected to market forces and smallholder farmers need a fair but of handholding to understand the complete scenario. Case in point is the optimal fertiliser recommendation we have enabled. This can reduce cost for one farmer but can increase the cost for another. Similarly, a shift to natural ways of controlling pest can reduce cost, increase effort but the main doubts remain if that covers the risk of losing a standing crop. Extension workers can provide the necessary buffer to take up those questions, point them not only to what is the solution but also about how the solution has been positively adopted by someone in the community and what are the government schemes that can cover the additional cost or effort. We have been witnessing positive signals working with the community members where the ability to pull these different information sources in a simple way helps them explain the financial implications better. They can simply ask using the bot about various aspects and retrieve the necessary information.”

Are there any regulatory or policy challenges that need to be addressed to facilitate the adoption of digital solutions in agriculture by smallholders in the region?
Vineet Singh: “The key regulatory challenge to overcome is the use of data that will power the digital solutions through the lens of gender and climate. In the next few decades, we are looking at a rapidly changing digital landscape that will bring more data that can be used for further to improve the digital solutions. Clear policy related to how information is collected, how different stakeholders can contribute to the information and how the stakeholders can use the information is going to be important. While the policy level changes have to be brought, we have to mindful of gender and climate and ensure that although positive impact is there, it is not limited to male small holder farmers that can further the gender divide. And similarly, provides substantial push to climate smart agriculture practices. We need to look at three intertwined mechanisms in play here. First there are social constructs that have come over time which prohibits equitable access for women members of household, two there are environmental constructs like lack of basic facilities that inhibits participation of women and then there are policy level constructs that still have not been able to bring the equality. Policy level changes should focus on how information dissemination through female extension workers with female farmers at forefront would help break the social constructs and also create awareness to enable positive local environment.”

Join Vineet, Eli, Faissal and digital solutions providers as they share strategic priorities to help boost productivity sustainably across climate-stressed regions at the World Agri-Tech Innovation Summit in Dubai on December 4-5. Check the programme of sessions and networking.