COP26 highlights the need to transform smallholder agriculture: Can digital solutions be an enabler?

Two years since COP25, during which the impacts of climate change have become ever more evident, the focus now shifts to Glasgow for COP26 and what many are seeing as the last chance to take meaningful action. Smallholder agriculture is one of the most vulnerable sectors to the impacts of climate change, as well as a small but not insignificant source of GHG emissions. Transformative innovation is needed for this sector to thrive in the face of the current climate challenge. Enablers of productivity must be found that are resilient to climate stressors and restore natural resources. To decrease the amount of food lost after harvest, we must find efficiencies in food value chains. Safety nets are needed to enable victims of climate shocks to recover, while innovative financing is needed to enable this massive transition.

Recognising the potential for digital solutions to enable this transition, GSMA AgriTech has been working to de-risk and spread innovative best practices in digital agriculture since its inception in 2009. With support from the FCDO we currently work in seven markets to digitise agricultural value chains and improve smallholders’ financial inclusion, livelihoods and climate resilience. To support innovations that enable smallholder climate resilience we work with mobile operators and service providers to research, test and scale digital climate services. As allies to the Global Action Agenda for Innovation in Agriculture we pledge to continue our  work to invest in climate-resilient technologies and practices, champion demand-driven solutions, and showcase successful business models.

Digital technologies are drivers of innovation

Over the last decade, an increasing number of digital agriculture services have matured and scaled to create socioeconomic impacts for farmers. Often, they do this by changing the way things are done. Using mobile communications channels to provide digital advisory services hugely increases the scale and frequency of interactions with farmers; digitally captured agricultural transactions enable farmers to prove their credit worthiness and access formal sources of loans; e-commerce platforms and digital aggregation solutions enable smallholder farmers to access markets for inputs and outputs that were previously out of reach; digital service platforms bring together complementary digital solutions that, when bundled, enable fundamental shifts in agricultural activities.

Data-driven agriculture solutions (DDAS) enable evidence-based decision making through the integration of a variety of data sources, including satellite imagery, weather data, and farm profiles. These solutions can be used by agribusinesses to coordinate field-level activities by identifying hotspots for crop pests and disease, and forecasting agricultural yields. For smallholder farmers, DDAS can enable digital climate-informed advisory services (DCAS) specified to farm location and current weather conditions; and, with the addition of farm-level data from soil sampling, sensors and drones, can enable precision agriculture services.

The context-specificity and ability to reach large numbers of farmers through digital channels means DDAS present an opportunity to scale-up climate smart agriculture practices among smallholder famers. Climate smart agriculture (CSA) provides a framework for simultaneously addressing the challenges of improving productivity, enabling adaptation to the impacts of climate change and mitigating contribution of agricultural practices to climate change. Although highly context-specific, several practices are applicable across geographies, including stress-tolerant crop varieties, organic inputs and conservation agriculture. Training and information barriers have been found to affect adoption of CSA in 90% of surveyed interventions.

Data-driven agriculture in practice: IKSL Krishi Dev Gyan

In 2007, the Indian Farmers’ Fertiliser Cooperative (IFFCO) and the largest mobile network operator in the country, Bharti Airtel, joined forces to establish IFFCO Kisan Sanchar Limited (IKSL), and provide Green SIM, a packaged service providing voice-based agricultural information. GSMA provided seed funding and technical assistance during early stages of service development. In the following years, Green SIM scaled to provide a mix of content relevant to rural users through a variety of channels to over 4 million users in 2021, thus pioneering the provision of commercially sustainable digital advisory services to rural populations.

IFFCO Kisan continues to innovate in the provision of digital agricultural services, most recently pioneering precision farming services through its Krishi Dev Gyan (KDG) platform. KDG provides farm-level dynamic decision making support to farmers based on a combination of remote-sensing, IoT and ground-level data sources that are analysed through AI and crop models.

Satellite imagery is used to provide advisory on irrigation and fertiliser tailored to zones within the farm, monitor crop growth and forecast yields, and highlight problematic areas. Observations from IoT weather stations feed into pest and disease early warnings, and enable further tailoring of advisory messages. Field agents, recruited remotely on-demand, and farmers geo-fence cultivated areas and upload images to the platform that are used to verify remotely sensed data, and image recognition software diagnoses plant pests and disease.

The KDG platform is currently being used in a collaboration with NGO BAIF and Microsoft Foundation to enable organic farming practices in the cultivation of a number of cash crops including tomato, okra and cluster beans. Satellite data and collected images enable actionable advisories to farmers regarding the application of organic fertiliser and pest control measures, respectively. As farmers are unaware of organic practices and hesitant to switch, customised advisory services build capacity and trust among farmers required to change behaviour. The platform also matches buyers and sellers to enable the purchasing of organic inputs.

DDAS have the potential to support the transformation of agricultural value chains required to respond to the increasing climate challenges facing smallholder farmers today. Through the provision of context-specific advisory messages to farmers they are able to build knowledge of and trust in CSA practices.

The GSMA AgriTech programme is assessing the landscape of DDAS and CSA in India, Nigeria and Kenya, the three main global innovation hubs in digital agriculture. The findings of this research will inform an upcoming publication, that will outline the opportunity for private DDAS providers to scale CSA practices among smallholder farmers. If you are an agritech or digital agriculture practitioner that is active in this space, we would love to hear from you – please reach out to us at:


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.