Feed the Future
This project is part of the U.S. Government's global hunger and food security initiative.

Harnessing the Potential of Sensor Technologies for Agriculture

This post is the final installment in a four-part series from the Digital Development for Feed the Future team focusing on the potential of low-cost sensor technologies to transform agriculture in developing countries. It was written by Nikki Brand, Program Analyst of Digital Development for Feed the Future.

We are on the cusp of a second green revolution. Through the application of connected technologies, we have the potential to increase agricultural productivity by 70% by 2050, helping us meet the 70% increase in agricultural demand projected in the same time frame.

Yet this second green revolution is not assured, and previous posts in this series have explored various barriers to it becoming a reality. In this post, I will explore a final barrier: the need for a cohesive, coordinated and broad-reaching ecosystem for sensor applications for smallholder agriculture in the developing world as well as the need to lay out a path for how we can make this a reality.

Cisco envisions this ecosystem as the “Internet of Everything,” an interdependent community that brings together people, processes, things (devices) and data. Applying this thinking to small-scale agriculture suggests a need for considering not just hardware or software, but also the business models and ecosystems facilitating their implementation. In other words, to achieve the gains in productivity that we know are possible, we must:

  • Integrate sensor data with localized, context-specific farmer knowledge rather than “copying and pasting” an intervention from one context to another
  • Unite stakeholders through convenings, evidence-sharing and collaborative learning, allowing each to make better, data-enabled decisions
  • Ensure that we are tapping into information sources that both “pull” from farmers and their crops and “push” back to them, feeding back into day-to-day farming decisions

By doing this, we will be able to harness the potential of connected technologies to improve agricultural productivity through small-scale farming.

And clearly, the potential is there. At USAID’s workshop on Sensor Applications for Agriculture this past June, various sensor-enabled solutions with potential applications for smallholder farms were discussed, including Arable’s Pulsepod, a device encompassing a complete set of sensors intended for weather and crop measurements and Kilimo Salama, a system for sensor-enabled weather index insurance. There’s also the forthcoming Bean IoT, small 3D-printed bean-shaped sensors that can be buried deep inside silos, connecting with each other wirelessly to give farmers a clear, three-dimensional picture of what’s happening to their crops in storage.

Bean IoT. Photo: All3dp.com.

Yet in the words of one of the participants, the challenge lies in pulling each of these (and other) technologies together, driving a “move from lots of fractured efforts to more comprehensive and integrated approaches that blend development, research, innovation and entrepreneurship.”

Even after a sensor technology is created, tested and deployed, it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Care must be taken to ensure that the data gathered by the sensor is valuable, accessible and actionable not just for farmers but for all stakeholders working in agricultural value chains, from extension workers to policymakers.

Innovators, NGOs, technology providers, governments, donors and the private sector all have a role to play in creating and maintaining a supportive and integrated ecosystem around sensor applications for agriculture.

Technology providers and agricultural organizations can:

  • Commit to breaking down silos between different actors and types of organizations through collaboration and shared learning
  • Adhere to the Principles for Digital Development, ensuring that technologies are designed with the user in mind, privacy and security issues are respected and data is open, accessible and shareable
  • Keep in mind the diversity of needs and variety of stakeholders when applying sensor-enabled solutions in developing countries

Academics can:

  • Conduct and support applied research on agricultural applications of sensors to build up a shared evidence base
  • Ensure that learnings are shared with both technology providers and agricultural organizations

Funders can:

  • Invest in developing and strengthening a network of actors through in-person and virtual means
  • Promote collaboration through partnership-focused procurements, convening events, exchanges, etc.
  • Share (and provide opportunities for others to share) information about innovations, funding and resources — for example, through the Global Innovation Exchange and AgTechXChange

At USAID, Digital Development for Feed the Future is committed to serving as a thought leader in these areas, particularly as related to using precision agriculture and emerging technologies to improve agricultural outcomes in the 19 Feed the Future focus countries. We hope you will continue to share your own learnings, challenges and successes with one another, and we look forward to providing additional opportunities for partnership and collaboration in the future. To continue the conversation, reach out to us at digitaldevelopment@usaid.gov or on Twitter via @USAID_Digital.

Digital Development for Feed the Future is a collaboration between USAID’s Global Development Lab and Bureau for Food Security and focuses on integrating a suite of coordinated digital tools and technologies into Feed the Future activities to accelerate agriculture-led economic growth and improved nutrition.
 
For more information on Digital Development for Feed the Future's work on low cost sensors and agriculture, please read the Key Findings Report from the Low Cost Sensors for Agriculture workshop in June 2016.