The expanding population and corresponding food demand has garnered the deployment of smart technology into agriculture globally. IFE OGUNFUWA examines the extent of technology adoption in Nigeria in view of Nigeria’s food sufficiency efforts
Kabir Danladi is a 45-year-old farmer with over 10 years of experience in vegetable farming, especially tomato and red chillies. He owns three hectares of land in Kaduna State, where he performs his yearly routine of land preparation, planting, weeding, harvesting and selling of his farm produce. However, in 2016, he was one of the victims of the tomato Ebola disease (also called Tuta Absoluta) that ravaged his farm and left him in debt.
Brown moths had laid eggs on the tomato leaves, the eggs developed into caterpillars, which fed on the leaves, stem and fruits of the tomato plant. Danladi was devastated. He couldn’t repay the loan he obtained from the co-operative society and his family’s survival during that period was hanging by a thread.
The challenge Moses Onyebueze faced was getting buyers for his cassava tubers at a reasonable price. He had mastered the art of cassava cultivation for five years. He planted high-yielding variety stem of the product sourced from the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, Ibadan and was certain of a good harvest, but he found it difficult to get off-takers at the end of each planting season. He needed good returns for his efforts and investment but he is not certain of getting that now.
Having accomplished some major feats in his banking career, Bamidele Ogungbe felt it was high time he owned his own business with his preference being in the agricultural sector. He resigned from his banking job and proceeded to start a poultry farm and plant exotic vegetables. He had the money to invest but he neither had the requisite knowledge nor the practical experience to do this successfully.
Ogungbe acquired large expanse of land in Ayede area of Ogun State over the years but he couldn’t afford to relocate to the town to manage the farm because his family and other business interests were in the city. Thus, he decided to employ a farm manager who mismanaged the funds and left him nearly bankrupt.
These are only snippets of the typical challenges that stakeholders along the agricultural value chain face and technology innovations are being created regularly to address them.
Food insecurity threats in Nigeria
Insurgency remains the number one threat to improved agricultural production in the country as large expanses of fertile farmlands in the North East has not been cultivated in many years.
More than three million people in the North East face food insecurity due to the Boko Haram attacks, which started over five years ago. Farming is the main source of livelihood of most residents of the North East but most of them have been displaced, while food supply within the region and to other parts of the country has reduced drastically.
The United States Agency for International Development, through its Famine Early Warning Systems Network, observed earlier this year that persistent conflicts had led to very limited cultivation of staple foods, while food aid from humanitarian agencies was being sabotaged by poor security in the environment.
Moreover, the agency warned that the flooding the country witnessed in 16 states this year destroyed farmlands and would put harvest below average.
Climate change is another factor affecting farm output globally and has garnered global attention, with many international organisations proffering solutions. There are threats of desertification, flooding and changing patterns of rainfall in Nigeria.
The incidence of disease outbreak like the Avian flu and tomato Ebola is an economic and public health concern. It often times lead to inflation and threatens the livelihood of Nigerian farmers.
In order to address the typical food insufficiency challenge facing Nigeria, experts note that modern agriculture operations require the use of sophisticated technologies such as machine learning, robots, temperature and moisture sensors, drones and the Global Positioning System.
In an Africa Agribusiness Insights report by PricewaterhouseCoopers, access to technology is seen as the main hindrance to agribusiness growth in Africa as many modern farms and agricultural operations are changing the face of agriculture with technology.
ICT usage in Nigeria’s agriculture
The use of ICT tools in Nigerian agricultural sector in recent times started with the sharing of Short Message Service with farmers due to the low literacy level and wide use of mobile phones by 75 per cent of the farmers.
However, ICT tools such as apps developed by programmers for monitoring of farm activities and management are gradually gaining traction.
Other areas where technology is being deployed in the country are crowdfunding for investors in agriculture, farm accounting and management, dissemination of market access information, produce pricing and sale and tractor management, among others.
The co-Founder, Probity Farms, Mr. Wole Ogunlade, observes that few technologies that use sensors and machine learning found their way into the Nigerian agricultural space in 2017 and he is optimistic that with adequate advocacy, more adoption of technology will be seen in the coming years.
e-Wallet system: This is an electronic system that allows the government to deliver subsidised improved seeds, fertilisers and agrochemicals directly to them based on personal and biometric information they have provided.
The project leverages the wide use of mobile phones by 75 per cent of rural farmers and sends SMS with information on their allocation of farm inputs. The farmers proceed to receive the inputs subsidised by 50 per cent from agro dealers, who are also on the electronic platform and operating within their locality.
In partnership with a technology provider, Cellulant, the programme serves an average of six million farmers annually.
Due to the success of the project, the African Union adopted Nigeria’s e-wallet system to put an end to fertilizer corruption on the continent and Togo and Liberia have similarly adopted the scheme.
Ignitia: This is a Swedish tech company, is providing daily, monthly and seasonal weather forecast updates to rural farmers in Nigeria through subscription. The company uses GPS to create localised weather forecasts that are delivered to farmers via SMS.
This information helps farmers to make informed decisions on the best time to plant, apply fertilizer and pesticides and harvest their farm produce. The company says the users have witnessed 80 per cent increase in income due to reduced risks and losses.
According to the Project Manager, Ignitia, Lizzie Merril, the technology has a weather prediction accuracy of 84 per cent.
Hello Tractor: The firm provides tractor services by using technology to connect tractor owners to famers. It uses a software to monitor the activities of tractors on the field. The firm generates tractor operators’ information and tracks the revenue generated during the time it is in use. It also alerts the owners of the need to repair damaged parts or carry out maintenance services on the tractors. It allows a network of farmers to book for a tractor via SMS or mobile app.
Probity Farms: It provides a farm management and accounting services for smallholder farmers through an app. The app solves the problems of recording farm practices, expenses and yield, and provides information on access to market to farmers. Through the firm’s accounting package, farmers are able to keep record of their expenses, yield and sales and increase their farm yield by up to 80 per cent. It gives agribusiness owners an analysis of their financial position at the end of the farming season.
Ogunlade says the first phase of the project caters to the needs of literate smallholder farmers who can use the app via their smartphones and have access to the Internet.
According to him, the second phase will address the needs of local farmers with limited knowledge of web applications by giving them access to information through USSD codes.
He adds that investors can also get real-time updates on the performance of their farms through their farm managers by using the app.
Novus Agro: The Novus Agro’s agricultural exchange information exchange services share farmers’ data, market price intelligence and agricultural advisory and weather information through its online platform and SMS.
In addition, the Chief Executive Officer, Mr. Chike Nwagwu, says the organisation deploys an artificial intelligence-based system that uses an Uber-like scheduling system to manage trucks on the platform.
According to him, this allows for better visibility of trucking options available nearby as well as improves turnaround times for trucks, which in turn leads to cost savings for both the operators and customers.
Other service the firm also offers include farmers’ helpline that will be launched in 2018 in partnership with the Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development.
Smart farming, the future of agriculture
With the world population expected to reach 9.1 billion by 2050, according to United Nations’ estimate, there are concerns of how to meet the rising food demand, which is expected to increase by 98 per cent by 2050. The population of Sub-Saharan Africa is projected to grow the fastest by 114 per cent and East and South East Asia the slowest by 13 per cent.
The prediction of the Food and Agricultural Organisation is that the demand for cereals for food and animal feed will reach three billion tonnes by 2050.
There are concerns by the international community on how to increase food production in Nigeria, bridge the food deficit gap, tackle food insecurity, address water problems, and optimally use available land for food production.
Farmers globally will need to increase crop production by embracing innovations that will ensure maximum yield per unit of land cultivated.
To address these challenges, some countries are using robotics, Internet of Things, cloud computing and other intelligent software. These advanced devices and robotic systems allow agribusinesses to be more profitable, efficient, safer and environmentally friendly.
A recent survey by Afrobarometer shows that water insecurity is one of the greatest challenges facing the world today and only 58 per cent of Nigerians have access to sufficient water.
A major threat to farming is water shortage and farmers require precise and real-time data to minimise water loss from the soil, carry out scheduled irrigation and ensure efficient use of water. Some enterprise-IoT software like Smart Watering Systems and Observant are addressing this problem by using wireless devices to monitor water level in the soil.
CropX is an Isreali start-up that sells cloud-based software that focuses on saving water using sensors. The company has raised about $10m in funding. This technology is currently in use in Chile, the United States, Canada and Australia.
Weed and pest control
There are electronic monitoring software that only spray herbicides where they are needed, thereby addressing the resistance of weeds to herbicides. For example, Blue River Technology is using computer vision and artificial intelligence algorithms to detect, identify and remove weeds in the field.
Strider is a Brazil-based ranch management start-up that uses pest monitoring application to monitor and treat pest infestation. It attracted $5m from Qualcomm Ventures to scale its operations.
Unmanned Aerial Vehicles or drones, which historically are used for military operations, have found application in recent times in different sectors of the economy, including agriculture.
The Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation estimates that three million UAVs will be supplied in 2017, and they will be worth $127bn by 2020 in the global market.
The CTA, in its policy review, states that there are different designs of drones that are capable of collecting high-resolution data through image, infrared, thermal and chemical sensors, and have found application in improving the management of crops, livestock, fisheries, forests and other natural resources. They are able of pick up signs of water stress, fertilizer needs, pest infestations and diseases.
In Nigeria, UAVs are not widely used by farmers but are currently being utilised by the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture.
An agricpreneur with the IITA, Mr. Tomiwa Adesanya, says, “We recently used DJI drones to look at how army worms destroyed a field. It is very expensive to pay for satellite imagery of a particular area. If you have a drone, you can easily scout through the land, put together the data and get information on the area that needs water, fertilizer and areas with low yield.”
Climate change monitoring
Farmers are being taught how to observe local bio-indicators in order to make strategic decisions about their farming. Available technologies make use of a combination of satellite observations, ground-based data and forecast system
Trace Genomics uses machine learning and genomics testing to identify microbes and other biological data in the soil, thereby helping farmers to maximise their yield. It has raised $4m in funding to develop its technology.
An AI sowing app, powered by Microsoft Cortana Intelligence Suite has helped Indian farmers to achieve an average of 30 per cent higher yield per hectare.
Tevatronic, an Isreali start-up, uses wireless sensors to collect precise data from soil and then converts the data in real time into a precise irrigation-fertilisation cycle without human intervention. The system increases productivity from 15 to 31 per cent and saves up to 27 to 75 per cent on water and fertiliser.
Cost, low advocacy, major barrier in Nigeria
IT experts in the agricultural sector believe that the cost of accessing technology is a major barrier. Other factors are farmers’ perception of the benefits of technology as well as regulatory bottlenecks in the use of drones.
Ogunlade says technologies sourced from other countries are expensive and there is a limit to what can be done to reduce the cost.
He suggests the development of indigenous technologies as a cost-saving measure.
He states, “If it is a solution that you have to get from abroad, there is almost nothing you can do about the cost. I feel the time is right for us to develop local technologies.
“In Probity Farms, we spent several months to develop the technology we are using. I know that the challenge is that most banks and financial institutions see agriculture as a risky project and that is why they are not funding it. But the good thing is that some of these things are changing gradually.”
According to him, the participation of the government is crucial to the national adoption of ICT-driven solutions in the agricultural sector, citing the success of the e-wallet system as an example.
Ogunlade adds, “We need a lot of funds to be able to fund technology because it actually takes time to build a great technology.
“The Federal Government put its weight behind the e-wallet project and that was why it was a big success. Right now, there are about 14,000 farmers who have come on board that project. It is easier to distribute fertilizers to farmers because it has the support of the government.
“Another good example is with cassava. A lot of people plant cassava and mosaic virus reduces their yield. I am aware that the IITA is piloting a solution with a Kenya start-up. They take a leaf of cassava, take it through a particular application, which will scan it and tell you the diseases that the cassava is experiencing. For that technology to scale, we need a lot of money to push it. Unfortunately, most start-ups don’t have money except very few of them that got external funding like FarmCrowdy.”
According to him, most of the stories about Internet-of-Thing in farming is not actively happening a lot in Nigeria.
Explaining the barriers to the use of drones in Nigeria’s agricultural space, Adesanya says smallholder farmers have not started seeing the benefits of using drones for scouting their farmlands due poor advocacy.
According to him, the perception among them is that it is quite expensive and will only increase their cost of production.
He explains, “Farmers have not shown interest in scouting their farms using drones. For smallholder farmers and researchers, it is expensive. If I have to charge for staff time and data to be given out, it will be a minimum of $400. When a smallholder farmer is charged this amount, it will seem as if he is being exploited.
“The CTA is trying to get farmers to know about drones in Nigeria until the campaign is fully widespread and extension workers telling farmers about the benefits of drones.”
Nwagwu says smart technology is not extensively being used in the country and in places where they are available, it is at the pilot stage.
According to him, there is an ongoing debate on the use of IoT to preserve fresh produce before they are sold.
The Novus Agro CEO explains, “The problem with using IoT for monitoring is that it won’t really extend the shelf-life of vegetables. There will still be overproduction at harvest, unless there is a chain of cold stores at the market that is powered all year to stop the deterioration of fresh farm produce before they get to the market.
“One of the biggest problems we have in Nigeria is that 98 per cent of farming is rain-fed and we don’t have year-round farming and there is always a period of glut and scarcity.”
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