SINGAPORE - I recently had the pleasure of joining the latest session in Grow Asia’s Digital Learning Series, where we heard from Amit Mehra, founder of Reuters Market Light (RML), on the challenges he faced developing a farming service to provide personalized insights to smallholders in India. RML is a tool that uses smallholder farmer datasets to deliver data driven insights on each stage of the farming cycle, i.e. when to plant, how to treat specific disease, when to harvest and how much to sell for. The journey that Amit has been on is a story of innovation, persuasion, dogged persistence and evolution, and perfectly encapsulates the difficulties faced by the industry in using ‘digital’ to improve the livelihoods of smallholders.
This is not news for anybody working within the agricultural industry here in Asia, and the proliferation of startups attempting to gain a foothold in this space is a testament to the opportunities that exist. It is inevitable that some of these will fall by the wayside, even as new entrants enter an already crowded market, but what does the smallholder really want and need from these tools?
Data which makes a difference
Agriculture is an innately unpredictable industry, so anything that can help a farmer manage and mitigate that is incredibly valuable. Many farmers still base their planting decisions on this season’s price, leading to the inevitable over supply and price crash. Rinse and repeat. By providing them with a pricing forecast to predict which crops will generate most income in the future, augmented with regional planning ‘intelligence’ (provided by a government agency, for example) a more holistic approach can be taken where farmers can maximize and predict their income. In addition, properly advised crop rotation, based on historical data simply communicated to the farmer, will improve the fertility of the soil and further increase yield.
Planting times are another great example of where data could make a material difference to farmers. Often the decision of when to plant has been passed down through the ages and is based on tradition and not science. By using weather and climate assisted advice a farmer could sow on the optimal date (and may only be a few days different to their neighbor) which could lead to significant yield gains and a reduction in inputs.
Moisture data combined with disease and pest predictions would be a further helpful addition to the smallholder. It would be in the interests of input manufacturers to proactively support the farmer in what, where and when to apply, through improved product performance, increased sales and the perception from the grower that they were in partnership with their suppliers.
Proprietary, personalized solutions for smallholders
What about post-harvest? Amit told a powerful story of a banana farmer in India. The farmer managed to increase his price from 4 to 7 rupees, simply by showing the buyer the current market price of 9 rupees from his mobile phone. This is a clear demonstration of the power of information, placed in the hands of the people who really need it. By getting this localized and personalized market data out to farmers they will have a better negotiating position, and can command a higher price.
Therefore, it seems obvious what farmers need and the value this data could bring to the agricultural industry across Asia. But what are the barriers to achieving this? Well, there are already many tools in the field capturing farmer data, attempting to provide key insights at various stages of the farming cycle, and this sheer number makes scale and direction difficult. It will be impossible for input manufacturers, credit providers and buyers to engage efficiently with all of these datasources on a one-to-one basis. The only alternative will be to build proprietary on-farm solutions.
This begs the question - can the industry work together to connect and unify existing solutions and adopt a multi-stakeholder approach, and if so how do we move this forward?
There are many challenges surrounding the capturing and dissemination of disparate data from multiple sources. However, with a holistic approach, modern digital technology can help smallholders get real value.