Digital building blocks to go beyond pilots for food security
Most geodata applications for food security are still in the pilot stage. Geodata specialists tend to look to general digitalisation initiatives for inspiration. The idea is to learn from them as they started earlier and are supposedly more advanced. Is this true? Apparently not, if you look at the latest World Bank report on digital transformation of the agrifood system.
The report stresses the importance of reducing high transaction costs and information asymmetries and I like the distinction between on-farm and off-farm digital technologies and the emphasis on environmental sustainability. But if you want to know about the way forward, the focus is very much on the “what” and not on the “how”. It’s not that it isn’t a good report, it is just that I expected more. Evidently not only geodata applications, but also digitalisation initiatives in general still face many challenges.
Similarly, the demand for the creation of a new, digital ecosystem is accompanied by a plea for investment, but then the reader is left in the dark on how this will be achieved in developing countries. Granted, this is a very difficult issue, but I would have expected more insight, especially if you look at the positive picture that earlier reports sketch.
Which reports are these? I mention a few:
Key World Bank reports, one with the AfDB and the AU from 2014 on the transformational use of ICT in Africa and the esourcebook on ICT in Agriculture from 2017 give examples and indicate possible gains from digitalisation. This is why you would expect (or hope for) a structural embedding of digital solutions by 2021, but for many of the case studies it is difficult to find information on the current state-of-affairs and, assuming that successes will get publicity, this is disappointing.
Maybe I am just too impatient. Examples presented in more recent reports are easier to trace. Have a look at the Dalberg/CTA report on the digitalisation of agriculture, the GSMA agritech toolkit or the digital agriculture map GSMA 2020.
In summary, a comprehensive ecosystem for digitalisation in agriculture in developing countries seems still a long way off. For the “how” we have to go back to our pilots again (such as those of G4AW and NpM, now part of the Netherlands Advisory Board (NAB), and those presented in the reports above) and take it from there. Incremental, organic growth and system of systems approaches (such as GEOSS) can be effective.
The message to projects like AfriCultuReS and TWIGA and others is: focus on compatible and replicable building blocks that could fit in such an approach. These could then be used for a combination of applications in agriculture, climate adaptation and environmental sustainability.
Space-based services for smallholders: what have we learned?
The Geodata for Agriculture and Water Facility (G4AW) provided co-financing grants to 25 projects in Africa and Asia (23 targeted smallholder farmers and 2 targeted pastoralists). Each project’s objective within this Facility was to reach 100,000 farmers (or 50,000 pastoralists) and create a sustainable business model. The satellite-based services that were part of the portfolio offered were: weather information and forecasts, good agricultural practices, crop management and (index) insurance. For pastoralists information on (good quality) water and pasture was provided.
What have we learned? Some key findings:
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to creating successful digital agriculture advisory services. A key factor is how partnerships develop and adopt the right business model for service uptake. The presence of a large agro-business, insurer, bank or telecom company in the partnership creates favourable conditions for reaching food producers and bundling with other services.
Geodata for AGTECH en FINTECH
There is quite some interest in geodata applications for inclusive finance for smallholder farmers. The idea is that financial institutions can make their operations more effective and more efficient. Geodata companies are looking for a combination of new markets and solving societal problems. Applications are credit scoring, assessment of repayment rate and time, geo-location of farms and plots, agricultural advice and risk management. The Platform for Inclusive Finance (NpM) and the Geodata for Agriculture and Water Facility (G4AW) funded a number of pilots.
The results of the pilots are very promising. However, there are a number of considerations to take into account:
Challenges encountered in the implementation of geodata applications were:
Two factors are especially important from an investor’s perspective:
The following technical, organisational and cross-cutting factors play a role in future developments:
Universal and inclusive access to geospatial information for increased production and productivity in agriculture and water
There is a lot of attention for digitalisation for rural development (see for example the IT4D publication), however the sustainable increase of production and productivity in agriculture and water with the help of digitalisation has not reached scale yet. The current wisdom is that this is most likely, because most farmers in developing countries are smallholders, notoriously difficult to reach. Is this true? We’ll have a look.
But first a few starting remarks, going back to the title of this blog. Universal and inclusive access to geospatial information does not necessarily mean that this information is free. Inclusive is added, because people should be empowered to act on the information they get. Paradoxically, this strengthens the case for free, or at least affordable, information provision.
Returning to the subject: what makes the concept of digitalisation so attractive? There is a history of creating an enabling environment for digitalisation:
The first initiatives on digitalisation for agriculture were those by MNOs. A lot of these were evaluated in 2015 or 2016, but what happened after? The recently published GSMA AgriTech toolkit gives a good overview of best practices and examples. However, there is little information about value added services related to precision agriculture, only a statement that the business case is not clear (farm information is mostly used as a support measure for other services).This seems to confirm that indeed increasing production and productivity for smallholders is the most difficult part to address of the whole agricultural value chain.
But there are success stories. An example is the Garbal app for pastoralists, developed in the STAMP (Mali) and MODHEM (Burkina Faso) projects, supported by the G4AW Facility that promotes the use of satellite applications. Other G4AW success examples deal with weather (start of rainy season, forecasts, extremes) and/or agronomic advice for high-value crops (vegetables) or crops that cover relatively large areas (rice) and/or index insurance.
Indeed, as the GSMA AgriTech toolkit and a recent GrowAsia study indicate, establishing a sustainable business case for these apps takes quite some time. In addition to that, the technology has to work, the transmission channels need to be appropriate for the target group and data protection and platform ownership need to be arranged (to ensure long-term success, platform costs should be kept as low as possible). In addition, several initiatives indicated that the service provided should consist of information instead of advice, to respect the position and expertise of the farmer / pastoralist as decision maker and often a bundling of services is requested by the target group (to be more effective and to avoid duplication and fragmentation). This makes sense, as increasing production is not very useful, if access to markets is the main limiting factor.
Water management-related apps are maybe easier to market than agricultural apps for smallholders, if one aims at the government as the main client and partner. An example is the use of the HydroNET platform of the company Hydrologic deployed for the Ministry of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development and water boards in South Africa. Usually it helps when these platforms are already developed for and functional in the home market.
This also applies to services that are offered to commercial farmers in developing countries. The € 10 – 13 / ha price (for a minimum of 25 ha) that the company IrriWatch charges for insight and advice on water consumption gives an indication of what to expect.
Other potential market opportunities are services for (local) government to facilitate decision making on food security, such as those developed by the AfriCultuReS project, and services based on the application (new) in situ sensors, such as those developed by the TWIGA project.
When looking at future perspectives, trends, opportunities and challenges, there are four types of providers (overlap is possible and the order does not give any indication of importance of priority) that can be distinguished as potential players in the market of services for agriculture and water:
Regardless of whoever will dominate the market, continuing support is needed to develop solutions that (also) cater to smallholders. Inclusiveness from start to end is a requirement for success, in the form of co-design and decision power for individual farmers and/or farmers’ organisations. Only if this condition is met, the promise of geospatial information of creating opportunities that change the context of doing business for and with smallholders will be fulfilled.
Environmental accounting, on the dashboard or in the trunk?
Fortunately, the attention for environmental accounting and ecosystem accounting is growing. We need more systems for inclusive measurement, monitoring and evaluation.
There are many initiatives:
But they are not used as basis for decision making.
Just to give an example: in the Netherlands there is a great exercise on ecosystem accounting in the province of Limburg, but, as far as I know, this and the more general system of national environmental accounts are not the guiding principle for decision making. When it comes to decision making “traditional” economic arguments prevail. This leads to problems when policy measures for climate change get into conflict with cost-benefit calculations according to the narrow definition. Especially when this has been going on for decades, the consequences are severe. Look for example at the protests of Dutch farmers, who feel they are unfairly treated by the government with measures aimed at reducing the nitrogen surplus.
Of course, one could start a discussion about the metrics used in environmental accounting or ecosystem accounting and their validity. But the same applies to economic calculations, see for example Dan Brockington’s blog on farmers assets in Tanzania.
Why is it so difficult to integrate the two types of accounts? Perhaps because:
My own experience in agriculture is that environmental accounting and ecosystem accounting rank very low on priority lists of what should be addressed: increasing production and productivity and reducing (disaster) risk come first.
However, this does not mean that people do not care about sustainability, climate or environmental issues. It simply means that incentives should be changed and, as part of that process, the concept of environmental and ecosystem accounting should be promoted more.
Certification is certainly a step in the good direction. And an integration with data gathering and data analysis can help (look at reports like “Counting on the world to act”) Two H2020 projects, sponsored by the European Commission and dedicated to the improvement of data provision and analysis for food security, water and climate change in Africa, TWIGA and AfriCultuReS can make a small but important contribution to get environmental and ecosystem accounting from the trunk of the car to the dashboard!
Co-design in times of Corona
Home and office of the engineer
One of the few positive points of the Corona-crisis is that it provides an opportunity for reflection. For me this included looking at the design considerations I applied ages ago and the ones we use now. What are the differences and what is still valid? A lesson from the Corona-outbreak is not to take anything for granted. In developed countries the emphasis is very much on achieving maximum efficiency and effectiveness, in developing countries my design criteria focussed on maximum resilience. That means shifting from looking at “what can go right” to “what can go wrong”.
Nowadays we love to go for the new technical stuff, with buzzwords like big data, disruptive technology, machine learning, etc. In the process, we tend to forget the “what can go wrong”-side of things. Of course we talk of co-design, but in practice this is dealt with as a step in the process and then we go on with the technical things that make us so happy.
The danger is that this creates a mismatch between the “technical solution” and its successful long-term application. Not that there is anything wrong with technology, but things should be kept in perspective.
Co-design at work
Here are some design considerations from a long time ago that still apply, in my opinion, and are maybe forgotten in our desire to hit the ball out of the park. This effect is reinforced by the fact that most innovation funding is project-based and we therefore want to show quick results.
Cost reduction: This applies to the introduction of new technology that improves the current situation (e.g. platforms with services derived from big data), but in such a way that the solution is sustainable. Keeping the costs low, instead of counting on a high revenue – high cost scenario (that maximizes profit), reduces the risk of failure. This focus can even lead to additional design gains, where e.g. earthquake-resistant water tanks and acid groundwater-proof concrete well elements turn out to be cheaper than off-the-shelf solutions.
Disruptive technology in action
Anti-fragility: This term, coined by Nassim Taleb in his book Antifragile, deals not only with building in redundancy (look at the problems we have now with getting sufficient Corona-testing kits and intensive care beds and equipment in hospitals), but also with keeping the right purpose in mind. That means that wells should be equipped with buckets instead of handpumps, when you know that remote villages will never get visits from maintenance and repair teams. It also refers to the concept of granularity (thanks, Jack Dangermond of ESRI, for a discussion on this, already a long time ago). Design with granularity in mind reduces the risk that when one element malfunctions the whole system breaks down.
Long-term perspective: We should take the time (that we usually think we do not have) to design for the long-term and really involve the people concerned. They then become the owners of the solution, e.g. indigenous communities that get a “yes-we-can” spirit and go for installation of electricity after the drinking water system is completed. On the other hand, just as adjustments to the Corona-situation takes time for us, acceptance of new solutions also is a process that may take longer than anticipated. E.g. by involving everyone you avoid situations where the location of a planned well is “cursed”, because the local traditional well-diggers were not consulted.
And, of course, we are “human, all too human”: after a while we will forget what this Corona-thing was all about. But still, the crisis gives us a good opportunity to give co-design and innovation a new look.
Weather forecasting for agriculture in Africa, the business case?
Weather information is a priority for farmers, whether they use irrigation or not. It should be localised, timely and accurate enough, to make the information relevant at field level. In Africa, this is often not the case, although there are information providers, such as aWhere and Weather Impact, that are active on the continent.
There is a clear need for local meteo stations, not only for increasing the density of the meteorological observation network, but also for other parameters. To give an example: humidity is very important for to assess the conditions in which late blight disease in potatoes can occur (information derived from satellites only is not accurate enough). An organisation that aims at filling this gap is TAHMO. TAHMO has now 400 stations and plans to go to 20,000 meteo stations quickly.
But who pays for all this? Cooperation with national meteo agencies is a must, but the budget available is limited. Advertising, as with weather forecasting in developed countries (e.g. buienradar (shower radar) in the Netherlands) is not an option in Africa. In addition, these applications provide their information on the web, while in Africa transmission through SMS and IVR would be more appropriate and needs to be done in the local language(s).
An option is to provide weather forecasting in combination with other services. This could be an inclusive model, paid for in combination with other services in a package, such as agricultural advice. Another option is to make use of a loyalty model: offer weather forecasting in combination with fertiliser or pesticides (paid for by the supplier of these inputs). Weather forecasting can also be considered as a public good. It can then be offered in a service model, paid for by the government, such as the AgriCloud app (a cooperation between the South African Weather Service (SAWS), Hydrologic and others that provides very important and much needed information on the start of the rainy season.
See also “Get this weather app on your cell phone” by Nico Kroese. Here the government has to step in to perform a public function by reducing risk and increasing production and, of course, by paying for the service. And all this does not even take the context of climate change into account that makes weather forecasting even more important and relevant.
If anyone has examples of successful weather forecasting applications that have found a sustainable business model, you are very welcome to share them with me!
Comparison of the spatial detail between a MODIS LAI image (a) and a downscaled LAI image (b) for the Umbeluzi study area (Mozambique)
Downscaling of MODIS LAI data
Presentation in IGARSS 2018
The International Geoscience and Remote Sensing Symposium is a premier event in remote sensing and provides an ideal forum for obtaining up-to-date information about the latest developments, exchanging ideas, identifying future trends and networking with the international geoscience and remote sensing community. This year it is taking place in Valencia, Spain, with the theme "Understanding and Forecasting the Dynamics of our Planet" (https://igarss2018.org/).
Partner AUTH is presenting "Spatial enhancement of MODIS Leaf Area Index (LAI) using regression analysis with Landsat Vegetation Index". The aim of this study was to enhance the spatial resolution of the MODIS LAI product using a downscaling model that combines Enhanced Vegetation Index and LAI images from the two satellites. The results show that it is possible to use this methodology to reliably estimate LAI at a 30m spatial resolution across various climates and ecosystems, thus supporting a food security early warning system.
The presentation is on Friday 27 July 2018, 9:30am.
We hope to see you there!
From large to small or from small to large?
Lessons from the use of mobile apps and geodata apps for smallholder farmers
Satellite and geodata applications for smallholder agriculture are quite new, more general apps for smallholders that make use of mobile technology are around a bit longer. A number of these mobile initiatives have been evaluated (have a look at www.gsma.com) and it is interesting to look at the finding to see where geodata and mobile apps could complement each other, also with an eye on new application fields, such as (inclusive) finance.
The approaches differ: apps that originate from mobile network operators (MNOs) tend to go for reaching large numbers of farmers quickly and then adjust the content, while the geodata service providers start small to get the tech aspects right and then go for scaling up.
This said, there are three areas where geodata could provide added value to mobile apps:
Conversely, geodata-based apps, such as those developed in the Geodata for Agriculture and Water (G4AW) Facility (https://g4aw.spaceoffice.nl/en/) can learn lessons in scaling up from mobile apps that already target large numbers of smallholders. Getting the tech aspects right is important, but reaching sufficient clients to make operations sustainable does not automatically follow from that.
Making use of power users (and/or authority figures as ambassadors), keeping the pricing model simple, making the service easy to operate for farmers, using local languages and metrics, taking illiteracy into account and taking care of long-term incentives for those in direct contact with the farmers are important findings from the evaluation of the impact of mobile apps that can be taken to heart in the further development of geodata-based apps.
In a fully operational phase the distinction between mobile apps and geodata apps will disappear. My expectation is that the two will be fully integrated, once the geodata apps get behind the experimental stage.
Expect this to happen pretty soon!