It’s very clear to us that it doesn’t matter which vertical you are looking at: everyone is adapting to a digitally enabled way of doing business. The investment we are making in terms of hardware, partnerships, and software — when you and I first met, we talked about how to make complex technology available at the bottom of the pyramid where it is going to have the greatest impact in changing things.AL: Where do you see change happening first, and how?
I’m glad you asked that. If you look at the value chain from start to finish, almost every activity lends itself to improvement using technology. We’ve been busy trying to integrate a number of tools to make a ‘digital-dense’ smallholder farmer. We want to know stuff about a smallholder farmer that he doesn’t know about himself. Worm’s-eye stuff. Stuff below the surface: nutrients in the soil, humidity in the soil. Previously this wasn’t possible, or if it was possible, it was very inefficient.AL: Where do you see room for the most improvement through technology?
A good example of this is soil testing, usually the domain of government institutions. If you are a farmer of any size, you are going to take a sample and ship it a couple hundred miles to some unknown place, where they do the test and in six months you get your results. Most input support programs are not based on fundamentals like how many nutrients are in the soil; it’s just a generic fertilizer recommendation. This leads to underapplying, overapplying, or applying fertilizer that never gets in the crop — which is expensive! Now, we have the ability to test in 15 minutes, and to let the farmer know the status of his soil composition and pH balance. We go a step further and make crop recommendations best suitable for his soil based on the results. If the farmer insists on a particular crop, we will give recommendations on the type and quantity of fertilizer necessary for that particular crop. This enables farmers to make data-informed decisions at the planning stage, ultimately impacting the quality and quantity of their yield. We are working with 40,000–50,000 farmers in South Africa, testing the soil and ensuring that they all have access to this data.AL: That’s a great example of innovation as an empowering, real-time decision tool, rather than a mechanism that keeps farmers dependent on technology to interpret what is happening in front of them.
Let’s talk about the Arable Mark we posted on Twitter
. This Mark is located in rural Zambia, next to a weather station contraption that requires 10 square meters to set up and has all types of instructions. Meanwhile, the little Arable Mark is doing all types of data calculation. I asked the site operator: When is the last time you got data from the weather station at this site? And he said they’ve never seen the data from that station. But with the Arable Mark, I could go online and immediately see the data from the past 24 hours. He was just blown away. Using open source satellite technology, we now have the tools to provide deep insight to help decision-making at the smallholder farmer level.AL: That’s especially important in Africa.
Yields on the African continent are still quite sub-optimal; we can change that with what we’ve got in our hands right now. If we could deploy 100,000 Marks in South Africa, we would have the most comprehensive view of weather in South Africa. If that information is shared with extension officers, we would have farmers planting at the right time. If we had information about plant health and disease incidence earlier, we could act. We wouldn’t have to wait for an extension officer to get on a bike and ride out to check on the field. We have the tools now — it’s on us to use them.AL: Tell us what you think the next generation of farming looks like. Who are the key players besides the farmers themselves, and what are their roles?
Solidaridad is building strategic partnerships with knowledge institutes in South Africa, such as the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research
. We work to create a pathway to allow their technologies to be tested in the field. Also, working with Zambia Agriculture Research Institute
, we have offered ourselves as a conduit for not just digital but biotech and breeding technology to reach the field. Secondly, we are creating internships for students in agricultural colleges and institutions to work with us alongside smallholder farmers. They read textbooks about how agriculture is done in the US, and work with us in integrating technology in the field.