File photo of a farmer using the Plantix app

From ‘ABC’ to the ‘Ds’ of agriculture – Digital, Disruption and Dissemination

Experts at the 11th ICT4D Conference called for global cooperation in digital agriculture

File photo of a farmer using the Plantix app

File photo of a farmer using the Plantix app.

Information and Communications Technologies (ICT) are disrupting agriculture for good but are not made widely available, echoed participants at the recently concluded ICT4D Conference. Amidst demonstrations of ground-breaking technologies, they called for greater cooperation between institutions, both governmental and non-governmental, in key areas like artificial intelligence and big data for the benefit of smallholder farmers.

“We shouldn’t think that ICT is only for computer scientists in the lab. In these past three days, we have learnt that ICT is everywhere, in agriculture, education, and health etc.,” said Mr Frank Tumwebaze, Minister for Information and Communication Technology & National Guidance of Uganda, where the conference was held.

ICT for Development (ICT4D) conferences are organized by a consortium led by the Catholic Relief Services (CRS).  At the conference in Kampala, Uganda, held during 30 April – 2 May, 2019, discussions were held about development in 10 sectors or tracks. ICRISAT, a consortium partner, led the agriculture track. Themed ‘Global Digital Development’, the conference had over 900 participants from about 440 organizations in 88 countries.

“There is a steady increase in the number of presentations from start-up technology firms and their service offerings are now more mature. The focus earlier was registering farmers into digital platforms. It now has shifted to engaging farmers to provide access to data, inputs, financial services, and to build their capacity for production and marketing,” said Dr Shaun Ferris, Director, Agriculture, CRS.

The highlight of the agriculture track was a panel discussion “From Data to Information – Challenges, Opportunities and Jobs in Agriculture for ESA in the New Information Economy.” The panel elicited varied perspectives on digital agriculture from researchers, governments, donors, practitioners and entrepreneurs.

One of the panel members, Dr Anthony Whitbread, Research Program Director, Innovation Systems for the Drylands, ICRISAT, recounted that while great strides have been made in data flows such as earth observation, mapping of crops and parcel boundaries, and gridded downscaled weather products, the challenge of translating this data into actionable, contextualized decision support that could be applied by the smallholder remains.

Mr Ram Dhulipala, Head, Digital Agriculture at ICRISAT, showcased the Digital Seed Roadmap tools developed by ICRISAT as part of the Tropical Legumes III and HOPE II projects.  Mr Satish Nagaraji, Senior Manager, Digital Agriculture, ICRISAT, presented the MEASURE platform developed by ICRISAT’s ihub start-up partner Verdentum.

Mr Nagaraji also detailed how skills of groundnut and tomato farmers in Andhra Pradesh are being developed through digital interventions. Participants appreciated the Plantix application, developed by ICRISAT’s ihub partner, PEAT, which was presented by Dr Srikanth Rupavatharam, Scientist – Digital Agriculture, ICRISAT. Plantix is using AI-based tools in real time to monitor the Fall Armyworm. Plantix has been downloaded more than 7 million times and has a regular user base of over 2 million farmers in India alone.

Dr Pierre C Sibiry Traore, Head GIS and Remote Sensing, ICRISAT-Mali, presented the project Nurturing Africa’s Digital Revolution for Agriculture (NADiRA). A highly innovative project, NADiRA develops the use of Earth Observation (EO) in contractual smallholder agriculture, improves risk management, efficiency, productivity, financial security and inclusive welfare benefits for all value chain stakeholders.

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