Boosting Food Security with Smart Farming Techniques

 Investment in smart innovations to boost food production without significantly stretching finite resources such as land and water is the surest path to attain food security, Gilbert Ekugbe writes

The Russia/Ukraine conflict has put many developed economies especially import dependent nations on the edge as food prices have continued to rise in unprecedented manner that have cnstrained countries to begin to think out of the box to meet their food needs.

Recently, the Director General, Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), Mr. Qu Dongyu, said that the food import bill for 62 nations he described as net food importers in the low and the lower middle-income groups, has increased to $24.6 billion affecting 1.79 billion people, hence the urgent need to prioritise investment into smart farming technologies.

For Nigeria, the National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA) stated that smart farming via digital platform under the National Adopted Village for Smart Agriculture (NAVSA) would engage 10 million farmers across the agricultural value chain by the year 2032, but it would require the political will by successive governments to achieve this feat.

Current state of Nigeria’s agricultural sector

The Nigeria Bureau of Statistics (NBS) in its latest report said the sector grew by 3.16 per cent (year-on-year) in real terms in the first quarter (Q1) of 2022, maintaining that the sector also grew by 11.55 per cent year-on-year in nominal terms in Q1 2022, showing a fall of 3.59 per cent points from the same quarter of 2021 and contributed 22.36 per cent to overall Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in real terms in Q1 2022.

The NBS said this was higher than its contribution in the first quarter of 2021 and lower than the fourth quarter of 2021 which stood at 22.35 per cent and 26.84 per cent respectively. Despite several interventions to boost the sector’s productivity, it is yet to come out of doldrums which goes to say that funding is not the major challenge hindering the industry, but channeling the resources to productive ends.

Crop production has remained the major driver of the sector. This is evident as it accounted for 92.05 per cent of overall nominal growth of the sector in the first quarter of 2022. Quarter-on-Quarter growth stood at -19.75 per cent in the first quarter of 2022.

Agriculture contributed 21.09 per cent to nominal GDP in the first quarter of 2022. This figure was lower than the rate recorded for the first quarter of 2021and lower than the fourth quarter of 2021which recorded 21.42 per cent and 24.17 per cent respectively.

Smart Farming Benefits

Smart farming techniques is an emerging concept that refers to managing farms using technologies like Internet of Things (IoT), robotics, drones and Artificial Intelligence (AI) to increase the quantity and quality of products while optimising the human labour required by production. It reduces waste, improve productivity and enable management of a greater number of resources through remote sensing.

In traditional farming methods, the farmer has to be out in the field and constantly monitoring the land and condition of crops. But with larger and larger farms, it has become more challenging for farmers to monitor everything everywhere every time. This is especially true with micro-farming, where many remote plots of land may be farmed for different crops that required different conditions and precise control of soil and water.

Today, the combination of smart irrigation and control being linked to local sensors, as well as sensing for pH and other environmental conditions, including insolation and local temperature, can stave off many issues that traditionally had been done by “walking the field.” Remote monitoring, through smart farming systems enable production yields to increase because farmers have more time to attend to their farm’s real issues: applying their expertise to solving problems with pests, watering in any location, amending soil conditions all through the use of sensing and automation.

During production, it is about managing one’s resources to improve the growing process. For example, precision farming systems concern precision seeding using automated tractors to reduce possible loss of seed and optimise spacing of plants to create the highest possible yield per acre.

Another example is water, through the use of precision water delivery, such as trickle or subsurface methods, to reduce evaporation and to improve soil moisture content, delivering water only when it is needed through the use of sensors and automation. On the demand side, smart farming systems are about careful management of the demand forecast and delivering goods to market just in time to reduce waste. Furthermore, it is about managing the delivery channel and ensuring that the transfer of product to the midmarket handler reduces waste through gentle and efficient handling, such as sufficient refrigeration. Overall, the entire process from farm to table is software-managed and sensor-monitored, reducing overall costs, improving overall yield and quality of the supply, and ultimately the experience for the consumer.

Government’s role

Apart from creating the enabling environment for the sector to thrive, there is also the urgent need to formulate policies that would attract both local and foreign agri-tech investors. Most investors are conscious of the fact that inconsistent policies still remain a challenge hindering the growth of the sectors. There is need to boost the confidence of investors on Return on Investment (RoI) for smart farming to thrive in the country. Also, the need to invest massively in research and development is vital for smart farming to take the Nigerian food sector to the next level.

Increased investment in research institutions to develop new ways and innovation to boost food production such as faster gestation periods of crops, boosting soil fertility and ensuring good farming practices to achieve healthy farm to table food to the Nigerian populace. Reports have it that most agricultural institutions are not really impacting activities in the sector as a result of not being business-minded and do not with the private sector to put their research into productive and profitable use.

The President, Nigeria Agribusiness Group (NABG), Mr. Emmanuel Ijewere, recently announced plans to deploy climate-smart agricultural techniques to boost food production in the country, saying that with support of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Group has been working on developing a National Framework for Climate-Smart Agriculture with the theme ‘Cleaner, safer, rewarding agriculture’ targeted towards efficient and effective use of land resources and modern farm technology.

He emphasised that the Climate-Smart Agriculture project would bring about increased harvest and less input sustainability; improve quality soil; sustainable greenhouse gas levels; high production and falling cost, new methods on weather and harvest forecast, among others, while also stressing the need for Nigerian farmers to adopt climate-smart agriculture as a solution to crop cultivation, mitigating post-harvest losses, improving crop yields, restoring soil nutrients, and improving livestock farming amidst ravaging climate change impact on the ecosystem.

Agric stakeholders’ thought

The President, African Development Bank (AfDB), Dr. Akinwumi Adesina, said that Africa’s food systems must be made more resilient to future shocks such as floods, droughts, and disease, pointing out that urgent and sustainable increase in food production is needed to reduce reliance on food imports and reduce poverty, and this is where digital services come into play.

“But digital services do not just raise farmgate prices, they are the gateway to farm loans, crop insurance, and greater economic security, which in turn enables farmers to increase their resilience to climate change by experimenting with new, drought-resistant crops, for example, or innovative farming methods.

Text messages with weather reports help farmers make better decisions about when and what to plant, and when to harvest,” he said.

He added that phones and digital services also speed up the spread of information through social networks, helping farmers learn about new drought-resistant crops or services that can increase productivity, stressing that free-to-use mobile phone-based app WeFarm, for example, has already helped more than 2.4 million farmers find certified suppliers of quality seeds at fair prices. “Examples of digital innovation abound, sometimes across borders.

In Ghana, Kenya, and Nigeria, equipment-sharing platform Hello Tractor is helping farmers rent machinery by the day or even hour, while in Ethiopia, AfriScout, run by the non-government organization Project Concern International with the World Food Programme and the Ministry for Agriculture, provides satellite images of water supplies and crops every 10 days so problems can be spotted quickly to aid remedial action,” he added.

According to him, transforming food systems digitally has demonstrably excellent results, saying that the multilateral institution has allocated over half of its climate financing to adaptation since 2019, which has already helped 19 million farmers in 27 countries to lift yields by an average 60 percent through applying digital technology.

For the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), climate-smart agriculture is an approach that helps guide actions to transform agri-food systems towards green and climate resilient practices, saying that CSA supports reaching internationally agreed goals such as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Paris Agreement. FAO said CSA aims to achieve sustainable increase in agricultural productivity and incomes, adapting and building resilience to climate change and reducing greenhouse gas emissions where possible.

“The CSA supports the FAO strategic framework 2022-2031 based on the four betters” Better production, better nutrition, a better environment and a better life for all and leaving no one behind.

The Chief Operating Officer, Tingo Mobile, Mr. Alao Ayoade, said that Tingo launched an app last year to boost the productivity of Nigerian farmers by about 60 per cent with its smart farming technologies.

He stated that the move is apt considering the nation’s rising population that has made boosting farmers’ productivity a categorical imperative that cannot be overemphasised.

He noted that smart technology will be connecting millions of farmers through their various cooperative societies thereby getting them to markets locally and internationally from their comfort zones.

In his words: “With this, farmers have unlimited access and market information such that their worries about infrastructural challenges, time and product wastage is totally addressed. It is a win, win, situation for these farmers and commodity traders across the world as well as our company serves as the link bridge.

“To simplify this process and also assist these farmers, we have had to provide them with our customized mobile devices. We currently have over 15 million of such devices in the market,” he said.

He stated that Tingo Mobile has been able to reduce time wastage, increase productivity of farmers and helping their wellbeing as they have more time to rest.

“With Tingo Mobile, farmers will be able to increase their profitability by 40 -60 per cent, thereby boosting their investment to produce more while also connect to a global market and network that help resolves challenges in their farming value chain. It will help to reduce food waste by over 50 per cent, increase Nigeria’s share of non-oil export, address poverty in rural community as well as rural to urban migration and help the country to achieve Sustainable Development Goals,” he added.

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