Sowing the seeds for accessible agricultural technology

BIS Research estimates that the agritech industry will expand to $23.1 billion by 2022, up from $9.6 billion in 2017. But how many of these services are available to smallholder farmers?
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According to the journal Natural Sustainability, less than 40% of farming households in Africa have internet access – a base requirement for a lot of agricultural technology to work. 

Whether it's drones that monitor tree health (like SeeTree in Tel Aviv) or a data platform that can monitor a dairy herd (see Ida from Amsterdam), technology is increasingly inserting itself into farming. Usually, there are two goals: either to increase crop yields using real-time data; or to reduce the need for human labor, which in some cases can account for up to 70% of a farm's costs, according to the UK's National Farmers Union. 

The cost challenge

But expensive tech is unlikely to be financially accessible to smallholder farmers. And, yet, farms under two hectares are responsible for producing around a third of the world's food output. It's a vicious circle: since smallholder farmers are also most likely to be at the whim of climate and weather changes that affect their output, they also need agricultural technology more. But, for agritech solution providers, this isn't always a lucrative market to tailor to, which often just increases the divide between multinational and small farmers. 

‘While these [agritech] innovators are in the process of scaling up, it's more effective to partner with larger entities who are willing to invest in resources and expertise to pilot some technologies,’ says Christian Layolle, the head of UK at The Mills Fabrica, an incubator and co-working space for tech companies focused on environmental and social change. ‘These pilots are important for innovators' technologies to be validated, and support them to bring the costs down in the long term.’ In other words, once the technology has been trialed and tested with larger players in the agricultural industry, the cost of implementation and hardware is likely to fall, opening the market up to small farmers. 

Bright spots

That's most likely why the agritech market skews towards more developed regions, like North America and Europe. But the industry is also growing in Africa, where agritech startups raised more than $59 million in funding in 2020 – compared with $13.2 million raised in 2017. An estimated 60% of the population of sub-Saharan Africa is made up of smallholder farmers. Large, tech-enabled machinery and hardware can often be financially out of reach for farmers in emerging markets, while agritech that's available on a phone would make it much more accessible. But even some of the app-based technologies require farmers to invest in sensors and internet-enabled devices to gather the data they need, which can add to the cost and make them inherently inaccessible to micro businesses. 

For countries where smallholder farmers make up a significant proportion of the local economy, affordable, widely available agritech can actually strengthen the internal food market and reduce reliance on imports. That's according to Aloysius Uche Ordu, the director of the Africa Growth Initiative at the think tank Brookings Institution. And since there's a burgeoning subculture of people starting farms as side hustles in their own homes – on rooftops or using grow kits, for instance – there could be a secondary market of those looking to track, measure and optimize their output. 

For agritech to be effectively deployed and adopted by farmers in emerging economies, it has to be as financially accessible and user-friendly as possible: micro farms are unlikely to need the complex data points that most agritech services seem to offer. 

Ones to watch

Based between Abuja and Nairobi, and operating in 13 countries, Hello Tractor is a platform that connects smallholder farmers with those who rent out tractors. Renting the equipment on a needs basis allows small farmers to become more efficient, without needing to put down a much larger amount to own a piece of equipment. 

Meanwhile, Zambia-based AgriPredict allows farmers to take pictures of plants that are suspected to have diseases to recieve on-demand diagnoses. If a disease is reported in a particular area, people can access information on the diagnosis and treatment options with or without a smartphone.

This article was first published in Courier issue 44, December 2021/January 2022. To purchase the issue or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.

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