Supporting Small Farmers in Africa through Home-grown Information Technology


The problem

Most African farmers often rely on guesswork in their farming practices. Many make decisions based on beliefs that have been passed from one generation to another, over centuries, with little scientific scrutiny. Yet, a number of factors, including variation in climate and population growth, have altered needs and ecosystem dynamics, including soil fertility. Often unaware of the complexity of this change, farmers have limited knowledge on the nutritional requirements by the crops as factors like rainfall, temperature, moisture, nutrients, and other pertinent data are rarely measured and tracked. This lack of deep insights results in poor decision making and low yields. For decades, the results have been consistent across most parts of the continent: severe hunger in farming communities. This poverty hurdle is not disappearing soon, because of the expanding human population, even as the advancement in rural agriculture remains on stasis. Moreover, due to the dominant land tenure system, the farm sizes are very small, just a mere 1.6 hectare on average, which makes it unsuitable to deploy technologies designed for large farms typical in U.S. and Western Europe. So, an agricultural redesign is important for new outcomes. It must be an Africa-inspired solution for the agro-sector requiring new thinking and evolution of new processes to drive efficiency across the food value chains. They must be affordable so that cash-challenged farmers can acquire them easily.

Few years ago, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations published a study where it estimated that the overall global food production will need to grow by 70 percent to feed a projected population of 9.1 billion people by 2050. The implication is that farming innovation must accelerate, not just in the most advanced economies, but also in places like Africa, where farming productivity lags global average.

Moreover, such improvement in crop yield must happen in a period of severe deforestation which keeps reducing available arable land across Africa. Also, growing militancy and political upheavals,  make many portions of farmland inaccessible. The food sufficiency challenge is further exacerbated by agriculture attracting less than 1 percent of commercial lending (usually to the few large-scale farmers). Consequently, the smallholders and subsistence farmers, which constitute the bulk of the farming entities, have limited capacity to invest in inputs and new processes.  The imperative is that boosting farm yield across the continent will not be easy if the present agricultural system is not redesigned.

Indeed, the African Development Bank understood this situation, promising to invest more than $24 billion to boost productivity and cushion African farm output from its present worth of $330 billion to $1 trillion by 2030. Agriculture accounts for more than 10% of the continental economy in GDP terms and employs more than 60% of the working population .

The solution

In the last three decades, major improvements in African industrial sectors have happened when innovative local entrepreneurs take actions. In banking, governments used to run the sector until African new generation banks, led by local entrepreneurs, emerged and transformed the sector from Lagos to Nairobi. In telecom, the lines used to be dead until icons from Zimbabwe to South Africa put mobile phones in the hands of African citizens where governments have failed for decades. For agriculture to experience the fusion of technology and smart business processes, the entrepreneurs must take action.

These African entrepreneurs are already working, offering generation-redefining developments in smart farming and financial solutions structured for African agriculture.  I am one of those entrepreneurs, as the founder of Zenvus, an agtech (agriculture technology) company based in Owerri, Nigeria. Zenvus is funded by USAID through a generous grant.

Zenvus measures and analyzes soil data like temperature, humidity, moisture, nutrients, and crop vegetative health, and helps farmers apply the right fertilizer and optimally irrigate their farmlands.  It is an electronic system with in-built sensors which when inserted in the soil is used to determine and estimate different types of major crop nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. It has interface for measuring the soil moisture content, and other pertinent data that can improve farming when analyzed and used to make decisions on crop types and farming practices. The process improves farm productivity, reduces farm input waste by using analytics to facilitate data-driven farming practices for small-scale African farmers.

When in the soil, Zenvus gathers and analyzes data about changing weather and soil conditions. It then sends the data collected in the farms to farmers through SMS or web/mobile App. While the SMS can be used by farmers with no smartphone, the app offers more intuitive capability. It displays real-time data and develops alerts and suggestions to maximize crop health. Using the data, the farmer can make the right decision about water and nutrients requirements. It provides intelligence on what, how and when to farm, delivering insights about when to irrigate and what type of fertilizer to apply. Incorporating advanced sensory technology and intuitive design, Zenvus ensures farmers are connected to their farms to grow healthier crops.  The data is wirelessly sent through WIFI, GSM or satellite to a cloud server from which farmers can then access the data via their phones and computing devices.

As the crops grow, Zenvus provides a normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI), which helps to track the vegetative health of their crops. It is made up of a special hyper-spectral imaging camera that works with the Zenvus web app to estimate the risk of stressed crops, droughts, outbreaks of pests and diseases. Moreover, it helps farmers evaluate the effectiveness of irrigation and fertilizer application by correlating soil data with overall vegetative crop health.

Also, Zenvus helps farmers map the boundaries of their farms and then print the documents so that farmers can obtain their land titles from governments. The delivery is simple: a farmer with Zenvus, operating in Scan Mode, walks around the boundary of the farm and when completed, the report is immediately available. The farm can download the report or print it.

Besides, data coming from Zenvus sensors is used to offer many additional services to farmers, including:

Credit: Zenvus
Zenvus output boundary
  • zManager, an electronic farm diary recording all phases of farming from planting through harvest to sales.
  • zPrices, which empowers rural farmers with real-time produce prices across major cities. By removing the rural-urban farm produce pricing asymmetry, farmers can negotiate better with merchants and earn more through better information.
  • zCapital and zCrowdfund, which supports farmers in raising capital (loan,equity or donations) by providing independent data from the sensors. These tools help banks and investors evaluate overall profitability of farms and elicit transparent fundraising from local communities, which can be repaid with produce from the farms after harvest. In a nutshell, the sensors validate the claims of the farmers and make lending/fundraising process more effective.
  • zInsure, which helps Zenvus farmers insure their farms by providing independent farm data from the sensors to insurers. This helps insurers to evaluate the risks based on actual farm data which is independently sourced.
  • zMarkets, providing a platform for Zenvus farmers to sell their produce after harvest. It is an avenue to expand their markets by removing geographic limitations. Farmers list their harvest days and buyers connect to buy them.

By empowering farmers and giving them tools to improve agricultural yield and productivity without any negative ecological or health impacts, Zenvus supports poverty eradication, job creation and food security. Most people in Africa are employed in agriculture and small farmers are the backbone of the continental economy. Through our partnership with farming cooperatives and local governments, we aim to reach millions of farmers with a view to building human and environmental wellbeing across Africa.

Zenvus team with Ministry of Agriculture in Nigeria
Credit: Zenvus
Zenvus team with Ministry of Agriculture in Nigeria