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Can Modern Technologies be Life-changing for Smallholder Farmers?

In view of the major global demographic and environmental changes expected in the coming decades, agricultural technology (agritech) will play a crucial role in making farming ready for the challenges to come. Such solutions already exist, but they are not yet being adopted at the speed required to achieve a fundamental transformation of the sector. Jon Trask, CEO of agritech provider Dimitra.io, explains which modern technologies are likely to have a major impact on small farmers, and which obstacles need to be resolved to accelerate their uptake.

By 2050, humanity will need to produce 60 percent more food in order to feed the over nine billion people who will populate the planet by then. The agriculture sector, which provides the bulk of our food supply, will need to operate at unprecedented levels of efficiency in order to meet this demand while mitigating climate change in the process.

Many think that the way to increase food output significantly while preserving and protecting the environment is to harness more smart technology. Innovations in agritech aim to improve yield, reduce or eliminate harmful practices, and explore alternative sources of food. But is technology a solution for everyone? Big agricultural companies can certainly afford autonomous robots or analyze satellite imagery in order to improve their operations, but how about the smallholder farmers?

While the use of various technologies in agriculture is gradually increasing all over the world, their global adoption is slow due to a number of reasons, such as high implementation costs or a lack of knowledge among farmers regarding the requirements for integrating them into their businesses.

Supertrends discussed these issues with Jon Trask, CEO at Dimitra.io, an international company on a mission to deliver agritech to farmers everywhere. He shared with us some insights from the frontline on how smallholder farmers around the globe can make use of this technology.

Supertrends: What are some of the problems the farming sector is currently facing?

Jon Trask: We found that smallholder farmers, which include most of the world’s farmers, are underserved from a technology perspective. They operate about 570 million farms and represent maybe a quarter to a third of the world’s population. In terms of productivity and the potential for improving it, these are very different from your typical European or North American farms, which are slowly being bought up by large firms.

Smallholder farms produce 60 or 70 percent of the world’s produce and foods and tend to consume a large percentage of what they produce. Farmers in Africa, for example, depend on their crops as they can consume 70 percent or more of the products that they create and sell maybe only 25 to 30 percent of their produce on the market. By providing good information and use of modern technology, there are many areas where we can help them increase yields, reduce their costs, and mitigate risks. In doing so, we can help them play a different role in the community. After all, farming has been a community event for hundreds and maybe thousands of years.

How can modern technologies help in this situation?

J.T.: Our objective is to find out ways to do that. We’re working in a number of nations with investment partners, governments, software providers, NGOs, and non-profits to find ways to deliver technology directly to those smallholder farmers for free. We have two groups of customers: the smallholder farmers and the governments themselves.

To reach this objective, we created a mobile app called Connected Farmer that can be used to register farms, set up geofences, etc., which allows us to use satellite and other technologies to improve or evaluate conditions in order to recommend improvements for individual farms. The app allows farmers to set goals and extract information regarding crops or livestock. With that information, we can provide analysis and offer best practices for improving productivity.

modern technologies farmers
Farmers can use mobile devices to introduce information about their crops in the field

Farmers also face problems related to animal health. How can technology help them deal with these issues?

J.T.: Our platform includes a genomics and genetics module that initially was built for governments. It gives farmers access to the information we retrieved from breeding or operations and genetic research labs, which is continually improved. Farmers can compare and assess their livestock using genetic predictors available in the app, just like we do in human health.

The app tracks different traits passed from parents to offspring among cattle and other livestock. They can easily submit information including physical genetic markers, such as the birth weight of a calf, or other health-related events to track the health of an animal throughout its life.

Certain diseases are passed from generation to generation. We offer sample kits that farmers can use to gather DNA from hair or blood and send it in for lab analysis. This information can be used to predict whether the offspring are likely to suffer from the same illnesses or have similar physical characteristics as their parents, which in turn allows the farmer to predict potential health issues and raise healthier livestock, or reduce some of the associated costs by making changes to the animal’s diet, activity, or behavior.

Data such as the weight, health, or ease of birth of a calf or illnesses in its first two years of life can either be analyzed individually or supplemented with additional genetics or genomics information and markers. We collaborate with geneticists and livestock experts, who have designed an algorithm that can make recommendations based on the combination of these two sets of information.

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Farmers can share with visiting specialists cattle data they gathered in the app

How do you make these platforms secure both for the farmers and the governments?

J.T.: Our platform contains information about the identity and financial operations of each farm, which we need to protect by maintaining a secure encrypted environment. Many challenges, including security, can be solved in a decentralized format. We’re also dealing with governments who require high levels of security. They also want to have control over certain data, and in many nations, we want to have data near the location. In a decentralized format, we can do that by combining technologies like edge computing and blockchain to deliver services and genomics.

For example, the genome of a cow is three gigabytes. We don’t want that completely decentralized and stored on 1,000 nodes around the world; we want to store it on a handful of nodes on the edge, and then store the basic identity information on the nodes around the world. Edge computing gives us quick access to the data, while blockchain keeps the identity data very secure, and the two pieces can’t work without each other. One piece of data isn’t useful without the other data.

Secondly, we’re dealing with complex supply chains. We’re not only dealing with a farm, but each farm is selling to packing houses, markets, and exporters. We need interoperability with many types of systems and provide data to many types of systems. Blockchain is highly suitable for maintaining security and ensuring high levels of trust regarding the permanent record within the system. So blockchain really fits that quite well. It’s much more difficult to maintain the level of security that we require in a completely centralized platform.

What are the biggest challenges in implementing modern digital technologies in agriculture?

J.T.: Like previous emerging technologies, blockchain & AI challenge the status quo and are still evolving as a technology. Blockchain with web3 is designed in such a way that we can layer and stack our technologies and make traditional mobile technologies communicate with the blockchain. There’s a bit of a misconception that a blockchain app is just a blockchain. But in fact, it consists of many different technologies.

When we need blockchain capability, we try to limit blockchain’s role in the software to providing or meeting that need. When we need artificial intelligence, we may be reading data from the blockchain. That data is analyzed to generate a report, which may – depending on its sensitivity – be written back to blockchain or kept in a traditional database.

How about at the farm level?

J.T.: Most smallholder farmers don’t have access to much technology. In a best-case scenario, their record-keeping is based on Excel and maybe an accounting system. But for the most part, we’re their first try at implementing technology on the farm. Most farmers wouldn’t notice that our platform uses blockchain; for them, it looks just like every mobile or web app.

However, not every farmer has access to the internet or cellular service, though most now have smartphones. How do we provide services that meet their infrastructure needs, not necessarily related to blockchain technology, but services where one farmer can log in live on their phone, potentially with offline access? Now, that’s a technology challenge.

Our ecosystem will allow other platforms to provide their software through the Dimitra portal itself. If you are a programmer located anywhere in the world, say in Kenya, and you have great software, and you want to use our team, use our distribution, and see how your product can align with our product, you can actually already publish your software within our platform itself. In the long term, we’re looking to have that in a hybrid open-source model, where any company can put their platform within the Dimitra platform itself.

If you had to single out the most significant challenges in helping smallholder farmers adopting technology, what would those be?

J.T.: I think as we grow as a company and get adoption around the world, language is of the first and simplest ones. In India alone, for example, our customers speak three or four languages, and that may cover only a percentage of the population. We’ve got the same issues in Africa and South America. The language issue is not difficult to overcome, but it does take time, effort, and money to publish the software in a number of languages and make it accessible.

The second challenge is the varying literacy levels in different areas of the world. How do you help those in need if their reading skills are lower than the typical average that we’re used to dealing with? We have to work with literacy experts to find different ways of helping farmers. How do you do this AND train all of those farmers? The solution we found is to outsource to knowledge partners, like, for instance with governments, NGOs, and non-profits. We train them so they can train the farmers, and allow them to play a role in distributing the software and helping people be effective with that.

In some of our projects, we need technology like sensors or DNA tests, and we get ecosystem partners who can go out and take a soil sensor reading on a farm, because a farmer may not be able to afford a soil sensor. We train that individual to show the farmer how to upload a soil sensor reading, and maybe show them a couple of tricks within the system to get more benefit for their farm in a very farm-specific analysis.

I think the human aspect in software in general, at least in my career, has been the hardest part. Developing the software is relatively easy. Communicating to thousands or millions of people who all have different communication styles, languages, and levels of literacy requires a certain touch.

When do you think that farmers using a simple app to manage their farms will become the “new normal” worldwide?

J.T.: I think that’s going to be different from region to region. It’s becoming normal in North America for farmers to use an app to do a number of things. I’m sure in the Netherlands, a large percentage of the firms are already using technology in that way. In India, we’re seeing adoption, and the levels are increasing. In some African countries that we’re working in, they don’t yet have the necessary infrastructure to make it normal. We’re going to learn the adoption levels of the country as we enter different countries and find our way around the local infrastructure capabilities.

I think there are generational aspects to it, too. Many young farmers are leaving the farming business, and older generations are looking at technology as a method to keep young farmers in the farming business and keep farming and agriculture exciting. It’s a new method for younger people in their late teens or early twenties to help the farm they’ve worked on – the farm that has belonged to their fathers, grandfathers, or their family for years and years.

When I grew up on my grandfather’s farm, my role was a laborer. I was the young guy who could throw the bales of hay on the wagon or whatever the case may be. Now the youth can teach the parents and teach the grandparents and teach those generational firms how to use technology to increase output. This way, the adoption rate could be much, much higher. It’s a new role, and it’s a new paradigm that we have to deal with.

For more interesting content on modern technologies used in agriculture, download our free publication about Innovation Trends in Circular Agriculture.


Alina Pintelie

Passionate about innovations, I am constantly promoting smart ideas and technologies that make our life easier and our environment friendlier. I'm a B2B marketer and content strategist based in the Netherlands. I write about geospatial technologies, agriculture, and the food industry while I help shape the content provided by experts as Content Expert Manager.

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