iSDA and the coming revolution in smallholder farming.

Agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa and across the Global South is ripe for change. Hundreds of millions of smallholder farmers continue to eke out a subsistence living using traditional methods. They need to find a way past the status quo and a path to modernizing their operations.

Many smallholders have poor access to the technical support needed to increase productivity and profitability. They lack reliable, timely information tailored to their unique growing conditions. Such deficiencies hamper sound decision-making about rotation planning, the timing of planting and irrigation, the application of fertilizers and pesticides, and many other aspects of productive farming.

Farmers lacking robust evidence on which to base their decisions often resort to using excessive amounts of all-purpose fertilizer, an approach that is wasteful and costly. These issues compound larger structural problems faced by smallholders — a persistent inability to expand their business, reach new markets, diversify their crops and plan on dependable yields.

Now, new technologies offer hope for progress. They are designed to help farmers manage the great variation in soil types across Africa, as well as the particular soil needs of the diverse array of crops grown in the region. These technical innovations promise to bring two major improvements. One is access to affordable field-level diagnostics for advanced soil analysis. The other is decision-support systems to help farmers understand their options and the associated risks.

This is where iSDA sees an exceptional opportunity to promote economic well-being in sub-Saharan Africa — beginning with pilot projects in Kenya and Ghana.

Emerging technology to support a broad development strategy

In conjunction with several regional partners, iSDA is developing a suite of products and services designed to enhance the livelihood of millions of smallholder farmers. The first of these is a portable digital sensor that will make advanced soil testing and analysis widely available and affordable.

This new generation of sensors operates through a smart-phone dashboard app that combines data from soil analysis, historic crop information and weather records. Advanced data analytics will provide recommendations for the selection of crop varieties and treatments for control of pests and diseases, as well as methods for accessing financing and insurance products. on improved crop rotations, cultivation practices and organic production requirements.

Our approach will for the first time integrate data gathered from national, regional and local sources. This data will form the foundation of an analytics service to support continuous improvement in agronomic practices. Users will also benefit from decision-support tools that facilitate business networks with local advisors and farm suppliers.

Benefits for many parties

The benefits that accrue from iSDA’s initiative will make a material difference to the well-being of many participants besides smallholder farmers, farmer co-ops and NGOs. These include a wide range of commercial operators such as multinational fertilizer suppliers, national fertilizer blenders, commodity value-chain managers, soil and plant analysis labs, and government extension services. All these parties have a stake in improving the productivity of farm suppliers, and the quality and predictability of crop yields — all of which will lead in turn to increased farm profitability.

In a number of countries across Africa, information is available about soils, crops, weather, emerging markets and related agricultural trends. What has been missing is the effective integration of these components into a suite of tools that is widely available and easy to use across cropping systems, climates and countries. Bringing all this together within a sustainable business model that can be readily scaled-up is what makes iSDA’s strategy unique.

Our pilot projects

Achieving success with breakthrough technologies on a regional scale will require thoughtful messaging, product development and partnership building. To ensure our project is working effectively before moving to full-scale deployment, we have developed plans for implementation pilots, beginning in Kenya and Ghana.

These pilots will initially focus on agricultural value chains that can support the cost of adopting new agronomic technologies. With its deep understanding of both the scientific and business issues, iSDA is well positioned to keep implementation and transaction costs affordable. iSDA will help farmers open doors to new business partnerships while offering attractive ways to test products and services for untapped markets.

Our pilot project in Kenya launched in August 2019, with the Ghana pilot planned for early fall. We are exploring additional pilots across both West and East Africa. At the same time, we are in the process of developing technology partnerships with industry leaders in the USA, Europe and India, as well as with incubators across Africa.

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