As digital connectivity spreads to rural areas, smartphones are helping small farmers in poor countries access data on crops, weather and soil. It is helping them boost production in the face of climate change. According to a recent report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, small farmers who produce the bulk of food in developing countries are some of the most vulnerable to changes in climate. And here, technology can help to minimise crop disaster.
China and India being the most populous countries in the world also have the largest penetration of smartphones that has helped their farming communities. Around 96% of China’s villages are connected to the Internet and each rural household, on an average, has three mobile phones. The sickle and hoe have become tools of yesteryear and have been replaced by smartphones and apps as the country’s emblematic farming tools.
The aim of any country’s development projects is to help farmers improve methods of farming through innovative and efficient agriculture methods. Their growth can aim to bring in development that plays an integral fight against global hunger. According to reports, in east China’s Jiangxi province, smart greenhouses with watering and fertilising are controlled via mobile phones and they have become a rage. In Yingtan, most work is done by a system of perforated plastic pipes combined with sensors to monitor temperature, air humidity, mineral content and water content of the soil.
Farmers in Bihar, too, now have a dedicated mobile application for them. Bihar Agriculture University has come up with a mobile app called Bihar Krishi App, which can be downloaded from Play Store on one’s smartphone. The app helps farmers in several manners, including crop management, horticulture, opportunities in agriculture sector, weather-related information, advice of experts on questions asked by farmers and even specific information about the quality of soil one is practising farming on and use of fertilisers needed for the given soil.
Navigation developer Trimble in the US has introduced a ‘Connected Farm’ app for smartphones that allows farmers or their consultants to map field boundaries, take geo-referenced photos and enter scouting information for weeds or insect pests—all on their phone. The free app allows for information to flow seamlessly. The information collected on the smartphone app can be downloaded wirelessly on to a software and it can be looped in to fertiliser, herbicide or insecticide application systems.
As mobile networks expand, associated services such as mobile payment systems also expand. This is opening up new avenues for using SMS to deliver ancillary services to farmers, going beyond price and weather data to allow the purchase of microinsurance, for example. With over a billion people connected to 4G networks in China, mobile Internet, the Internet of Things (IoT), Cloud computing, and Big Data have transformed farming. In Ruichang, Jiangxi, a mobile app, synced with an insect light trap, monitors pests.
Agriculture, along with fisheries and forestry, is one of the largest contributors to the gross domestic product in India. A Boston Consulting Group study says that by 2020, about 315 million Indians living in rural areas will be connected to the Internet, compared to 120 million at present. In semi-urban and rural areas, there is a huge potential telecom user base that needs relevant and affordable content, connectivity and 4G devices.
In addition to weather updates, facts and figures that were once the scribbled domain of old receipts and tattered pieces of paper are now organised on a smartphone. As more farmers get access to smartphones, text messages could be used to deliver information almost in real time. Smartphones, with camera and GPS features, are potentially strengthening small-scale farmers even further. Farmers are also using smartphones to simplify their lives by performing tasks such as starting or stopping centre pivot irrigation systems.
Mobiles can help farmers improve agricultural productivity by giving them access to basic financial services, new agricultural techniques and new markets, in turn helping them to secure better prices for crops and a better return on investments. As their income improves with each harvest, they can invest in better seeds, fertiliser and chemicals.
Almost 94% of farmers use mobile phones, especially in developing countries, where mobile phones may be the only available widespread computing and communication technology. The advance of these relatively inexpensive hand-held computers that can be used virtually anywhere gives users access to all the information of the Internet and puts tools such as calculators and record-keeping literally in the palm of one’s hand. It’s the farmers’ turn now to put tech to grow crops.