Big Data And Smart Farmers For Africa’s Agricultural Transformation

Published 5 years ago

Why data could be the deciding factor in Africa’s agricultural transformation.

The world has a palm oil problem.


It’s a global, billion-dollar industry and its end result is irreversible environmental damage, ranging from deforestation and fires, to the loss of species such as tigers, pygmy elephants and orangutans.

Palm oil is used in 50% of the products we buy (think bread, shampoo, soaps and even chocolate) due to the fact that it is the highest-yielding vegetable oil crop.

Yet, in a country like Uganda, where 80% of the population is involved in agriculture as a way of life, many Ugandans farm oil palm on small plots, barely making a living.

“The use of data for purposes of precision agricultural systems is being used around the world to optimize farms, from anticipating natural disasters such as droughts and flooding, to predicting the best time to harvest crops, to anticipating outbreaks of pests and disease before they impact the produce,” says AgriSA’s Janse Rabie. “In an era of ever-increasing challenges with respect to ensuring food security, both locally and elsewhere in Africa, the application of data and smart farming practices is becoming ever more important.”


SAP Rural Sourcing Management is a cloud-based system used by Barry Callebaut, among the world’s largest sustainable cocoa producers. But what does fair trade chocolate have to do with Uganda’s problematic, smallholder farm life? And how can data change the palm oil trade so the way in which we farm this much-used resource becomes more ethically-focussed and transparent?

READ MORE: ‘2020 to 2030 Will Be The Decade Of Agri-Tech’

Back in 2009, SAP built a prototype for small-scale farmers across Africa using funding from the German government.

“We spent a long time doing ethnographic research, getting right on the ground with small-scale farmers in West Africa to understand how they live and what challenges are. We wanted to find out what would be useful to them and the cooperatives to which many of us didn’t belong,” explains Simon Carpenter, SAP Africa’s Chief Technology Advisor.


Simon Carpenter. Photo provided.

The system was bought by Callebaut so they could provide it to their small-scale (but globally situated) growers as well as the co-ops they deal with – be it cocoa, vanilla or even palm oil micro farmers – a way to collaborate in real-time.

This is where the Kalangala Oil Palm Growers Trust (KOPGT) comes in. The farming collective acts as a hub, connecting smallholder farmers to government services and local agricultural companies. And now, the GIZ – a German development agency that provides services in the field of international development cooperation – is working closely with the Ugandan government to roll out this solution to over 2,000 farmers.

“If we can start to gather data from small-scale farmers on how they farm and where they’re farming, we can do a couple of things: firstly, we can start to build a history and an identity for that small-scale farmer, which makes it easier for either the government or the private sector to extend credit to them so they can start to scale their farms. It also informs government in terms of who is growing what and where which starts to inform future government policy. Do they need agronomists? Are they growing the right crops for their kind of economy? Once you’ve started to generate this data, you can do some amazing things with it,” adds Carpenter.


Farming of the future

In many instances, lack of information has a direct impact on African smallholder farmers’ outputs and, by effect, livelihoods. According to new research, only 5% of cultivated land in Africa makes use of irrigation compared to 38% in Asia.

Farmers today are experimenting with new processes and production methods. From big data to biotechnology, sensors, drones, autonomous systems and more, the technologies likely to make the most difference in agri-tech are tools and equipment that can capture and interpret data.

Benji Meltzer is the co-founder of Aerobotics, a South African agri-tech startup that has developed an early warning smart scouting platform that could help farmers identify potential pest and disease issues in tree crops. With over 500 farmers already signed up on the platform across 11 countries, they’ve built an end-to-end farm monitoring solution.


Benji Meltzer. Photo provided.

“As farming conditions become more difficult, farmers have more reason to optimize and farm more precisely. Our data can be used to make more efficient use of resources, including water and chemicals, by applying corrective action in a data-driven manner (rather than blanket application across the farm) and as a result focusing on treatment. Farmers don’t have tools to effectively manage their resources and farms and are wasting both time and money through inefficiencies. The lack of information, insights and data-driven decisions on the ground can lead to losses and reduced yields,” explains Meltzer.

“We are able to identify individual trees and help growers pinpoint those that are under stress. This means farmers can focus their attention on the areas that matter, and as a result farm by exception and driven by data, rather than by walking blindly through the field,” he says. “We are able to monitor pest and diseases close to real time through our drone imagery (which is processed within a few days) and in-field scouting tools which enables farmers to monitor by exception.”

Aerobotics helps farmers take advantage of a portion of this data by allowing them to drive decisions from using proprietary machine-learning algorithms. What’s interesting is all of their products are currently hosted in the cloud, where they use Amazon Web Services (AWS) to scale their applications.


“We specifically use AWS for cloud storage (to store raw and processed imagery), cloud compute (to process huge amounts of data and extract insights), database storage and to serve our applications. Working with AWS to help farmers grow healthier crops is a perfect example of the way in which technology transforms traditional industries, leading to better livelihood conditions. Africa can be a harsh environment for farming. Crops are constantly under threat from problems such as disease, pests, and drought. Using the AWS cloud, we are bringing compute, data analytics, and other advanced technologies to help farmers grow healthier crops, despite the harsh conditions.”

Like others, Meltzer believes that cloud has the potential to solve many problems in almost any industry and application. Agriculture is no different, whether it’s irrigation systems, fertilization, or disease and pest control, compute and data analysis capabilities the cloud offers transform these processes to make farming of the future easier.

The use of drone technology, along with data harvesting, has been incredibly effective for South African macadamia growers. At Sutton Crest citrus farm in Mpumalanga in South Africa, for example, they managed to increase nut production with more detailed soil analysis, GPS data and probes.

Macadamia nut trees require different nutrients from one phenological stage to another, so by understanding what to add to fertilizer and when, the farmers can prevent early nut drop – something which lowers overall yield – and save water usage at the same time.

‘Crowd-farming’ cows?

From using geo-spatial analysis to farm sugarcane in Swaziland to Fresh Direct, a Nigerian startup which repurposes old shipping containers to grow crops in the densely-populated Abuja capital; to Livestock Wealth’s Ntuthuko Shezi who is “crowd-farming” cows in South Africa as an entry point to the financial services industry, the time is now for African agri-tech.

And it’s far more than self-driving ploughs or robotic tools – the value lies in big data and its applications. MySmartFarm is another locally-developed all-in-one farming tool hosted in the cloud. It analyzes farm data to give real-time insights.

According to a status report from the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), Africa’s food system requires an agricultural transformation focused on more than just production. It needs to encompass the entire food system. It could explain why, nearly eight years ago, John Deere, the agricultural equipment manufacturer, fitted their tractors with global-positioning-system (GPS) sensors. It seemed revolutionary at the time, but this addition made it possible to stop farmers missing out patches as they shuttled up and down fields or covering the same ground twice – a common problem with an easy solve involving data.

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) has created standards for ethical and sustainable palm oil production which certifies qualified growers and processors. Currently, around 20% of the palm oil across the globe is certified by RSPO but with smarter farming methods, this number will surely increase.

The farm, like the future, is not what it used to be.

– Tiana Cline