ICT - Harvesting more benefits from mobile phones

Information technology in smallholder agriculture

Update on April 6th, 2017:

We are opening the way to broader use of Farmforce mobile technology. A new subsidiary of Eisblink Holding will make the platform’s services more widely available. This could benefit large numbers of small farmers worldwide. Here is our joint communiqué in EnglishGermanNorwegianFrench, and Spanish

Thanks to better mobile phone networks, millions of smallholders can benefit from services that help them farm more efficiently. Further advances are on the way. 

Smallholders can, for example, receive information on their phones about the weather, plant pests and diseases, as well as market prices. ICT (Information & Communication Technology) makes it easier for them to share advice or resources. Pooling by phone enables them to save money by buying inputs in bulk or coordinating harvest transportation. “Improved information access is just the beginning, however“, emphasizes Eric Seuret from Syngenta Foundation partner 3S Mobile. “ICT initiatives are also making the entire agricultural supply chain more efficient.”

Purchasers and exporters often need to source produce from large numbers of smallholders. “That can be an organizational headache”, comments Seuret. Food companies have to guarantee harvest quantity and quality, ensure compliance with safety and sustainability standards and also provide full transparency and traceability. “Managing thousands of farmers with paper and pen quickly becomes unfeasible”, he adds. “It’s not just the high cost of recording activities this way that is a problem., There is also the challenge of auditing the paper records efficiently.” These hurdles can mean that buyers exclude many smallholders. Tools like Farmforce (see below) use mobile technology to make sourcing from them easier.

From paper and pen to data-driven decisions

Advances in sensor technology, data collection and processing, and in Artificial Intelligence (AI) could soon lead to further breakthroughs in smallholders’ information access and use. Our Foundation is exploring several possibilities. One example is the combination of low-cost soil sensors and sophisticated yield models with a scenario-planning app. “This would allow farmers to simulate on their phones which input investments generate the best yield and profitability”, Eric Seuret explains.

Another area for exploration is how Machine Learning could improve disease detection and diagnosis. “New platforms are making AI applicable to a wider range of problems”, Seuret comments. “They could help answer farmers’ pressing questions. That would be a great addition to the often overstretched agricultural extension services in developing countries.”

A further important question is how to provide smallholders with precision farming tools at low cost. Large commercial farms already use tractor sensors that, for example, enable the individually dosed application of inputs to each plant. ”Mobile devices and adapted sensors could provide similar solutions for small farms”, Seuret believes. “The next few years will bring lots of new options for smallholders”, he adds. “It’s essential that we continue to innovate and empower them with information and services for more efficient agriculture. The Syngenta Foundation is proud to be a leader in this vital area.”  

The power of technology in the service of smallholders

Farmforce now benefits users worldwide

Many food companies buy from large groups of smallholders. Most still record activities with pen and paper. Increasingly, they need to collect highly detailed information. Our Farmforce platform offers a solution.

“It is almost impossible to meet modern documentation demands with the old methods”, says Robert Berlin, the Syngenta Foundation’s Agribusiness Manager. Compliance with food safety regulations, sustainability labels, and other standards require accurate information about smallholders’ planting, growing, and harvesting. That generates huge amounts of data. “Buyers who can’t manage this process properly cannot export smallholders’ crops”, he adds. “Everybody loses out.”

With Farmforce, buyers and exporters can efficiently manage data from thousands of small farms. The cloud-based software system helps to ensure transparency and traceability. “By making this easier, we want to encourage companies to buy from smallholders”, emphasizes Berlin. Access to sophisticated markets allows farmers to tap into lucrative sources of income and improve their livelihoods. “Farmforce can help companies meet safety and sustainability standards such as GlobalG.A.P”, he continues. Checklists explain what the certifiers expect. “Automating the recording of key information also lowers the cost of achieving compliance”, Berlin points out.

Farmforce tracks every farm activity, including planting, applying inputs and harvesting. Local staff enters the information on mobile devices. After central synchronization, records from thousands of fields are available at the click of a button, making auditing faster and simpler. “Having complete growing details to hand, centrally and in real time, dramatically improves the way organizations can manage their operations”, explains Eric Seuret, whose company 3S Mobile designed the software. Instead of waiting weeks to find out if farmers correctly followed food safety protocols, users can now see this immediately. Field officers can then help farmers take any corrective action required. 

“Farmforce also provides a level of traceability that was previously difficult to achieve”, notes Robert Berlin. “Every harvest sold to a buyer can be traced back to the individual farmer and field. Each input can be listed, along with application dates and quantities, the storage warehouse and the shop that sold it. Farmforce offers complete traceability from input purchase through to harvest sale.” To ensure accurate data entry, users can read barcodes with a phone camera or wireless scanner. “So, for example, crops coming off the field can go into crates with barcodes that are tracked right along the supply chain”, Berlin adds.

Customers see measurable benefits

Several dozen organizations are now using Farmforce, spread across some 20 countries on three continents. “Worldwide, our robust, mature solution has already brought them measurable benefits”, notes Farmforce Sales and Operations Manager Spencer Morley.

For example, Doreo Partners, an investment firm in Nigeria, uses Farmforce at one of its companies, Babban Gona. Teams, there can now diagnose problems in the field more efficiently and react faster. Farmforce has also reduced data time-lags between field operations and head office from several days to a few hours. Another customer, Adisagua, has cut the lag by a similar amount. This smallholder initiative in Guatemala belongs to FairFruit, which is a member of GlobalG.A.P. All suppliers must, therefore, adhere to rules on crop quality, pesticide use and other aspects of production. Thanks to Farmforce, Adisagua’s tracing of smallholder produce is now ten times more precise. The platform has made it considerably easier to comply with GlobalG.A.P requirements.

For further information, see www.farmforce.com