How can technology enhance agriculture?

Over the past 50 years, the agriculture industry has been hugely transformed with the rapid evolution of the tech sector. Indeed, the scale, speed, and productivity of farming development have been increased with advances in machinery, tools, and software.

With the help of developers, testers, and engineers, the agriculture industry is ready to witness a new revolution that will integrate data, artificial intelligence (AI), and connectivity. These emerging technologies can bring so much to agriculture in terms of increase of yields, enhance production, build sustainability, and resilience across cultivation.

Alongside technology, agriculture is moving towards a connected and digital future. Therefore, we have asked experts in the field to enlighten us on how can tech enhance agriculture?

 

How does technology affect agriculture?

In order to make the industry more efficient, sustainable, and resilient, agriculture must embrace a digital transformation enabled by connectivity. Agriculture is one of the last industries to be digitized globally, however now, with new digital tools available,  it is time to bring on the next stage. These new technologies can help farmers in their decision making, as well as allow better risk and variability management, which then could lead to better yields and improve economics.

Gordon Skinner, CTO at FutureFarm, highlights that technology impacts agriculture in ‘every possible way’. Indeed, he points out that technology is key to every aspect of the farm manager’s life.

For instance, technology tools enhance agriculture from research and development of crop protection inputs, through weather monitoring tools, enhanced communication and knowledge sharing facilities, advancing aerial surveillance technique all through to opening new channels to buy and sell.

Nzan Patrick Ekok, Quality Assurance Analyst at Farm Republic, adds that modern technology has improved agriculture production through:

  • Farm management
  • Improve yield in production
  • Provide access to market
  • Post-harvest management

Therefore, it is certain that the industry needs to implement technology solutions not only to survive but also to thrive.

 

The tools to help

Agriculture is an essential industry and yet it is crumbling under the weight and strain of all the work to do. Gordon indeed says that farmers are being squeezed from both sides of a cripplingly difficult industry.

On one hand, he continues, the inputs required to grow food are becoming more and more expensive. While on the other, the prices obtained from the grown produce are growing down. Hence, the farmer is having to work harder, with higher for less reward.

This is where technology comes in. Gordon highlights that technology solutions are able to assist the farmer in buying cheaper through aggregation, selling higher through access to new markets. It can also help them manage every step of the growing process to maximize yields for the work they do.

‘Every step of the journey is being enhanced.’

 

Quick adoption of tech

Gordon emphasizes the fact that agriculture is adapting itself to tech surprisingly quickly. Nowadays, farms are hotbeds of technology. They are using self-driving vehicles to precision spraying to armies of drones monitoring the fields.

‘Farmers are very aware of the constraints they are working under and they are more than open to exploring technology solutions that will assist them.’

Nzan also adds that agriculture is adapting to tech through data-driven and the implementation of best agriculture practices.

The rapid adoption of digitally connected technologies also allows farmers to focus their time on work outside of the industry or on other lands to increase their revenue and productivity.

 

What are the challenges?

Yet, the industry still faces many challenges that slow down or prevent any initiatives to advances the technology in agriculture.

Indeed, as we have seen, many regions and rural communities lack the necessary connectivity infrastructure or funding that would help them adopt new digital tools and tech.

According to Gordon, regulation is a huge factor in the widespread adoption of some technology solutions. For instance, there are very tight restrictions on the areas covered by surveillance drones, understandably due to risk factors near population centers and major roads.

Yet, these regulations mean that the technology is unable to be utilized to its full potential.

Another issue, he continues, is mistrust. Farmers have been told for decades that the latest technological craze will revolutionize the way they farm. However, in some cases, these have proved to be less than accurate.

Nzan emphasizes other challenges such as illiteracy, unfavorable government policy, and lack of access to finance. Indeed, this is witnessed in smaller communities in which farmers don’t or have very small access to modern technology. A common effort should be taken in order to improve the adoption of tech and digital tools.

Moreover, the COVID-19 crisis has even increased the difficulties that farmers are facing. With lower sales volumes, farmers see even less revenue than usual and without help, they could lose all of it. The pandemic has highlighted the need of having more local providers, which could bring more resilience to smaller farms. Similarly, with mobility restrictions, farms that rely heavily on manual labor are faced with additional challenges.

Hence, this crisis has truly demonstrated the necessity to spread digitization and automation within the agriculture industry.

 

Rural communities

Although connectivity and infrastructures in farming are increasing, in many rural communities, these changes are slow, and the resources are lacking. Yet, McKinsey confirmed that by 2030, advanced connectivity infrastructure should cover around 80% of the world’s rural areas.

Africa is however still lacking behind with only a quarter of its area to be covered by then. The main thing to focus on is to develop more effective and additional digital tools for the industry as well as to foster widespread adoption of them.

Nzan then points out that the way for digital technologies to help rural communities is by giving them access to information and implementing sustainable farming practices.

 

The role of testers and engineers

Testers and engineers can bring a lot of ideas and contributions to agriculture technology.

Gordon thinks that having farmers collaborating and sharing expertise alongside testers and engineers can only lead to improvements. Indeed, as he says, farmers are very good at what they do, and they understand it implicitly. They know where their problems are. On the other hand, engineers and testers are more schooled in thinking about technological solutions.

By working together, they can reach technological solutions to genuine problems. On the contrary, if they are working apart, the farmer doesn’t have the technical expertise to address on-farm issues, and similarly, the engineer has no understanding of the genuine problems that exist and would likely build a solution to a problem no one is asking for.

Nzan also adds that engineers and testers can help build farmers centric Agtech solutions.

Furthermore, Agritech companies are slowly increasing as more people are becoming aware of the challenges faces by farmers and how much we, as a society, depend on them. Thus, Agritech companies specialize in bringing farmers innovative products that use technology and data to improve decision making and increase yields and profits.

These organizations could offer new and efficient solutions and pricing models that are fit for farmers, which would then lead to faster adoption of their digital and connected tools. Besides, Agritech also has the opportunity to partner with agribusinesses to develop solutions.

 

Raise awareness

In order to raise awareness of the agriculture industry and help it develop further, Gordon emphasizes the need for a campaign to create a wider understanding of the journey of how fresh are produce to how they end up on our plate, and the paths it takes to get there.

He points out that if everyone understood how hard the farmer works, and for how little reward, then perhaps we would be more inclined to shop local and pay more for our produce. The convenience and cheapness of supermarkets currently win out for the average consumer, but in this dynamic, the farmer loses.

Nzan suggests a few solutions to raise awareness about the agriculture industry such as:

  • Efficient data management.
  • Promoting Education in our rural communities
  • Easy access to funds by farmers.

Perhaps then, technology advancements will grow in the most rural and isolated farming communities and help them adopt the digitalized and connectivity tools that they need to progress and thrive.

 

Conclusion

In order to move forward and handle the growing challenges, the entire agriculture industry needs to adopt technology tools and solutions. This will then require an important investment in infrastructure and education. It will take time but, this will allow agriculture to become more resilient, sustainable, and effective. Embracing technology transformation will thus lead to a connectivity-driven future for agriculture.

 

Special thanks to Gordon Skinner and Nzan Patrick Ekok for their insight on the topic!

Some numbers and sources are taken from McKinsey’s Agriculture’s connected future: How technology can yield new growth

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