Dirt to data – The new revolution in agriculture
It is estimated that, through technological innovation, the Internet of Things (IoT) has the potential to increase agricultural productivity in Africa by 70% by 2050. This is exactly the figure by which demand for food in Africa is set to increase based on population growth. This is according to a Deloitte US report on the impact of IoT on agriculture, titled Dirt to Data: The second green revolution and the Internet of Things.
Agriculture is seen as a key economic driver by the World Economic Forum (WEF), which holds its Africa regional meeting in Kigali, Rwanda on 11-13 May. Under the theme ‘Connecting Africa’s Resources through Digital Transformation, the 26th WEF on Africa will convene regional and global leaders from business, government and civil society to discuss the digital economy and agree on strategic actions that can deliver shared prosperity across the continent.
WEF has identified the IoT as one of 21 ‘tipping points’, when a specific technological shift enters mainstream society. For the IoT, WEF estimates that this point will be reached by 2022. Given rising agriculture demand and the associated resource scarcity challenges, the IoT will ensure that the tipping point is reached sooner rather than later.
Carlton Jones, Agriculture Sector Leader for Deloitte Consulting, says the drought in Southern Africa caused by the El Niño phenomenon resulted in lower than expected crop yields. “To some extent, the crop failures reported could have been avoided through use of technology that is only now becoming available. Technological innovation within the agricultural sector could have helped ensure that farmers were better prepared in dealing with the current drought by informing them of what to plant and where to plant it given the El Nino effect on the region. “While these technological advances may help farmers mitigate against bad yields, implementing such technologies remain fairly expensive and may not yet be feasible for small holders farmers, but rather is likely to be implemented via multinational corporations at present.
Enhanced data translates into better products being developed for the market therefore ensuring all round benefits. “The IoT has the potential to ensure that all stakeholders within the agricultural value chain, whether large company, smallholder farmer, food manufacturer, retailer, or consumer are able to maximise onvalue”, adds Jones.
“The report notes that the IoT has proven its value in numerous industries and that the main question for stakeholders in the nascent agricultural IoT ecosystem is how to commercialise and scale the technologies, and who will pay for their development and deployment”, says Jones.
He adds that these are the strategic issues, which he would like to see WEF apply its collective mind to across the agricultural value chain. Technological innovation tied in with data analysis has the potential to ensure that food production will be able to keep pace with population growth globally.
“Despite the green revolution having being modelled in the USA, an African green revolution is yet to take place. Such a revolution will take into account localised factors, learning’s from other developing economies and use the IoT as an enabler to enhance the sector as a whole,” says Jones.
This revolution is one driven less by new techniques with consequences of resource depletion and soil degradation, but rather by technology which gives farmers the data to help make better choices. It will likely be grounded in the use of data to inform more efficient and effective farming practices and drive associated environmental and social benefits.
A wave of innovations, from satellite geo-mapping by NASA to the use of drones to collect aerial data, provides insights into the health of the land on a real-time basis. Technologies such as advanced sensors and monitoring equipment can now allow farmers to monitor crops more precisely and continuously, thereby enabling more strategic decision-making to increase productivity with reduced impacts on the environment, thereby doing more with less.
“The uses of these technologies cover the entire spectrum, from more productive farming techniques to improved nutrition. Sensors attached to livestock give early warning of illness, enabling prevention and thereby increasing milk yields. Such a targeted approach to veterinary care can have the added benefit of reducing the need for herd-wide preventative antibiotics, which have been shown to contribute to drug-resistant bacteria,” says Jones.
One method whereby smallholder farmers can benefit from IoT is through aggregation of their resources and equipment, something already implemented in South Africa.
Additional value can be created when one considers the role of agriculture in emerging economies. In these economies, the IoT can provide value not only through increased resource efficiency and crop productivity, but also by providing social value and financial benefits for smallholder farmers.
Collaborations like these to deploy IoT technologies will be increasingly vital if we are to put the world’s farms on track to feed the estimated 11 billion people who will inhabit the earth by 2050.
“Despite the challenges,” says Jones, “there is cause for optimism.”