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How big data can transform small farms

By Winnie Makena

Agribusiness like all other commercial ventures is a complex affair that involves many variables.

There is profit to be made and there is a high possibility that you will make losses when you get your math wrong. Because of the many strands of data needed to establish whether you are running at a profit or loss, without the right tools, it is easy to miss the mark.

That is where Big Data comes in. The emerging interest in Big Data in all sectors is timely because it is creating new ways to help farmers analyse their operations and make agriculture more efficient and profitable.

Thus, to push their ventures to the next level, agriprenuers will need to embrace digital tools and a host of innovative technologies to stay afloat in this competitive market.

So how can a smallholder farmer deep in Makueni or Uasin Gishu County tap into Big Data?

Simple. Big Data is not only limited to drones, sensors and expensive gadgets used by big agribusinesses and accessing them does not have to be a daunting task. Smallholder farmers can benefit from collection of data and they can use it to manage their businesses profitably.

There are several platforms with Big Data for farmers and a number of them are already using such platforms to manage their agribusinesses more efficiently.

Digifarm platform

Jonathan Kiptoo, a smallholder farmer in Marakwet uses the Digifarm platform to get links to markets and farm inputs.
“I used to do a lot of guesswork before because I did not have crucial information that affects the day-to-day running of the farm. But since I joined Digifarm, now I get text alerts on the best time to plant. I also access loans from Digifarm which we pay back after we have sold our produce,” Kiptoo says.

Digifarm, developed by Safaricom Ltd, is an integrated mobile platform that offers farmers convenient, one- stop access to a variety of services that decrease the cost and increase the quality.

Through the platform, Kiptoo also gets competitive prices for his produce. He says previously he would sell a 100kg potato bag for Sh600 to Sh700 but through the platform he gets Sh2,500.

If you want to register on the platform, you dial the USSD code *283# on your mobile phone and the rest is self explanatory.

According to the website, Digifarm empowers farmers with solutions to grow their business and every farmer who has registered on the platform has access to credit and other financial services. The loans are processed based on the big data that is developed by FarmDrive to score farmers financing.

Disruptive agritech
Another Big data enterprise is UjuziKilimo that combines the use of IoT (Internet of Things), data analytics and artificial intelligence to collect and analyse data that helps farmers and agriculturalists make precise decisions.

"UjuziKilimo, a real-time soil testing service using technology to provide precise and actionable agricultural information to farmers using sensors and mobile phone technologies," says Bosire Onyi, founder of UjuziKilimo.

Through the platform, farmers can access soil quality, receive interpreted statistics, and find the best fertilisers and crops for that soil, Onyi says.

Indeed, when employed strategically in agribusiness, data-driven farming can change the fortunes of farmers.
Dr Moses Olum, an agricultural expert at Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Organisation (KALRO) says the transition to use of data comes with it bigger revenues.

"Are you making profits? If you are, what are your profit margins? The inputs are factors you put into production and knowing that, helps you know how much will come out, and thus what profits to expect....

“Perhaps you have different ventures, when you collect data you are able to know what business makes what percentage of profits, and you are better placed to know what to cut on to remain within the profitability margin," Dr Olum says.

Data as a predictor
Dr Olum also points out that having an idea of the daily event in the farm creates improved decision making by the farmer. Developing farm records on types of fertilisers to be used, the variety of seeds to be planted, when to market your produce and how to employ the best farming techniques helps to know what works and what doesn’t, says the vet.

“If you know you will use Sh600 a day for your dairy cow, then when selling it you can budget and also create the best price for your produce. Having these records also helps you readjust your pricing whenever there are changes in production amounts,“ Dr Olum says.
Efficiency
Olum also points out that for telephone farmers, those who are not engaged in the business full-time, data is everything. Whether it is an animal or crop farm, it is possible to generate and keep farm data that can be used in automated farm machines.

With data, Dr Olum says a farmer is able to schedule daily farm activities like irrigation or spraying even in their absence.
 Keeping data on the amount of milk produced can help in assessing the well-being of your livestock.
"Milk production for example, of a sick cow is much less. Your records will show unusual surges and decreases.
Female cow fertility is another important factor in milk production. Reproduction records help you understand the reproduction cycles of your livestock. They have to have a calf, so when a farmer knows when the cycles, you know when to except calving and can reduce losses that occur when animals miss heat,” Olum says.

 Internet penetration

With the many possibilities of using Big Data, Olum points out that smallholder farmers need not shy away from embracing data because they feel inadequate. On the contrary they have everything it takes to milk the benefits of data including owning smart phones and having access to Internet.

With internet penetration in the country at an impressive level, more farmers can make use of platforms that provide them with data to make smart decisions.

Communications Authority of Kenya statistics show that the  mobile phone penetration in Kenya is almost at 80 per cent (among the highest in the world).

A GeoPoll report in 2017 found that, of the mobile-owning population, a high percentage own a smartphone, with 53 per cent owning some sort of smartphone. These means farmers can get access to this information, regardless of their agro ecological location.

Information on latest varieties, changing weather patterns, crop production techniques and improved agronomic practices for them to produce are much needed. Through this gained knowledge, the farmers improve their farming skills thus improved farming which eventually result to high yields.

Other than Digifarm other platforms where farmers can access crucial data are online B2B marketplaces like Twiga and M-Farm, to software platforms for loans like Apollo Agriculture, Tulaa and Farm Drive to even solar powered irrigation systems like SunCulture.

There is also FarmDrive, a startup that connects unbanked smallholder farmers to credit, while helping financial institutions cost-effectively increase their agricultural loan portfolios.

With global food demand set to surge almost twofold by 2050, it will be incumbent upon farmers and agricultural suppliers to harness data and innovation to improve productivity and feed a growing global population.


Background
Meanwhile, big data in agriculture will continue to be of interest even as agri-tech industry continues to grow. In 2017, about $700 million was invested into the budding "ag tech" industry. A larger proportion of funding came from venture capital as investors are keen on how data will change the future of food.

 

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