Opinion: The latest vital input for smallholder farmers in Africa? Data

Jane Sebbi in her farm in Kamuli, Uganda. Photo by: Bread for the World / CC BY-NC-ND

Every smallholder farmer knows the success of his crop depends on the quality of inputs, from the best seeds to proper irrigation and smart fertilizer use. But the success of African farms today is also relying on another increasingly important input: data.

Whether it is satellite weather forecasts guiding farmers to make better agronomic decisions or drone-gathered information about their land and harvest to share with lenders, access to data is proving key in bolstering African livelihoods, which largely rely on agriculture.

In Uganda, coffee producers are discovering that digitally profiling their farms can allow them to offer traceability of their products, which is bringing a significant premium for their coffee and opening doors to new opportunities. It is a great example of how growing levels of digitalization can be harnessed to support smallholders.

With the support of the EU-funded Technical Centre for Rural and Agricultural Cooperation, or CTA, the Ugandan coffee union NUCAFE used a simple questionnaire to gather information from farmers that included farm size, production information, and GPS data. This was then used to develop a digital database of union members, including maps of farms and individual coffee fields.

The returns on this input were obvious very quickly. Within six months, farmers in Bufumbo, Uganda, saw international buyers pay up to 60% more for their certified and traceable coffee. For some farmers, this amounted to an extra £750 ($975) a year in a country where the average annual income is just over £1,000. It also generated pride among farmers, who were identifiable by their quality coffee.

Beyond the market benefits, digital profiling can also increase farmers’ access to financial products such as credit and insurance. With more information about the size of their farm and their cropping systems, banks and lenders can more confidently assess their investment and risk.

And georeferenced data providing a detailed overview of farms allows extension workers to better support farmers to make logistical plans. This includes taking out drought insurance, for example, and adopting practices suited to changing climatic conditions based on accurate and up-to-date information.

Such initiatives are not without challenges: Some rural locations are beyond the range of telecommunications, but we were able to overcome this with a service that could be used offline.

And some coffee farms are difficult to quantify accurately because they grow other crops among the coffee to get the best out of their land.

But the success of our project to date has already led to other initiatives. NUCAFE member Bufumbo Organic Coffee Farmers Association has used the database to secure certification for its coffee. As a result, the association sold 19.8 metric tons of certified coffee to an Italian buyer for roasting and 160 metric tons to others.

Meanwhile, the second phase of the initiative with CTA will use the database to generate a QR code for each batch of coffee, further improving its traceability and enhancing its authenticity.

So, while climate change and uncertain economic times continue to add pressure onto Africa’s smallholder farmers, digitalization is offering new opportunities to increase market access and income.

The age of information is transforming the global economy and propelling the Fourth Industrial Revolution. It is only right that the world’s millions of smallholders also benefit.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • David Muwonge

    David Muwonge is the deputy executive director of the National Union of Coffee Agribusinesses and Farm Enterprises in Uganda, which undertook a digital profiling initiative with support from the Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation. David is also a smallholder farmer himself.