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Can digital farming revive a faltering agriculture sector?

Few instances of innovation wouldn’t help farmers unless technologies acquire industrial scale, especially in the developing world

Ehtesham Shahid

Published: Updated:

As I settled down to interview top executive of a global professional services company earlier this week, the temptation was to talk all things digital. After all, the company provides “a broad range of services and solutions in strategy, consulting, digital, technology and operations” and claims that 25 percent of the world economy will be digital by 2020.

However, the conversation with Mike R. Stucliff, group chief executive—Accenture Digital, went beyond digital economy, digital divide, digital security and the environment to, guess what, agriculture. Of course there was the small matter of technology trends, how they are transforming our lives, and how we use “digital tools and techniques to create new experiences for people” and to make the world a better place.

For me, this was an opportunity to explore my subject of interest. Is digital economy helping farmers? If yes, in what ways? Are poorest of the poor reaping the benefits of this “revolution”? Is research and development being done to benefit the needy i.e. especially those down the value chain?

Stucliff was up for it. He addressed all of them and backed his arguments with data, analysis and anecdotes. Stucliff explained how a farmer today can use a simple text phone to access soil sample kit and GPS-tag where that soil came from. This enables seed and chemical providers to treat a particular plot of land, evaluate its chemical composition and suggest seeds, fertilizers and pesticides to improve the yield.

Imagine being in a flood or a drought-like situation in a third world country, with little to no network connectivity, and then being asked to check the suitability of soil for a particular crop via a digital application

Ehtesham Shahid

It may seem easier said than done but Stucliff vouches for its utility. According to him, the SMS phone is only used to move the soil sample back and forth and can lead to 30 percent increase in crop yield for small plot farmers. Similarly, digital technology can help farmers know “when to sell their actual produce” and “eliminate middle men who weren’t adding any value”.

In the words of Stucliff: “Digital is enabling people to participate in economies and take advantage of assets that they’ve never had access to before.”

The downside of automation

But that’s about where the good news ends, simply because far too many farmers all over the world are still trailing badly in this race for digital footprint. Imagine being in a flood or a drought-like situation in a third world country, with little to no network connectivity, and then being asked to check the suitability of soil for a particular crop via a digital application. Try getting into the shoes of a sugarcane grower who is struggling to find buyers for its crop owing to the closure of the nearest sugar mill.

There are reasons to believe that the explosion of digital technologies is yet to translate into tangible benefits on the ground in areas that need them badly. There have of course been examples of smart farming and unique examples in different parts of the world but they have definitely not reached an industrial scale.

In fact, it is this intermediary industrial wheel that has faltered in recent decades. World Bank President, Jim Yong Kim, admits that “the traditional economic path from productive agriculture to light manufacturing and then to large scale industrialization may not be possible for all developing countries”. Kim even suggests that, in large parts of Africa, it is likely that technology could fundamentally disrupt this pattern.

“Research based on World Bank data has predicted that the proportion of jobs threatened by automation in India is 69 percent, 77 percent in China and as high as 85 percent in Ethiopia,” Kim said earlier this month. When simple automation – in other words reducing human intervention to a minimum – can cause such huge job losses, how much can a soil testing equipment salvage the situation?

No matter how many innovative techniques are introduced in farming, they wouldn’t make a major difference unless they are applied on an industrial scale.

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Ehtesham Shahid is Managing Editor at Al Arabiya English. For close to two decades he has worked as editor, correspondent, and business writer for leading publications, news wires and research organizations in India and the Gulf region. He loves to occasionally dabble with teaching and is collecting material for a book on unique tales of rural conflict and transformation from around the world. His twitter handle is @e2sham.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.