Digital Farm has well and truly become Producer Direct’s next exploration into the use of technology in smallholder communities. After successfully launching WeFarm and becoming the first charity to secure VC funding for a for-profit subsidiary, Producers Direct has seen how farmer-led tech can gain serious traction (at the time of writing WeFarm has over 250k users), and have a real impact on the livelihoods of smallholder farmers.
Digital Farm: uses Internet of things technology to provide smallholder farmers with accessible, affordable and applicable data. Although shrouded in its use of lots of jargon and techie speak, the concept behind Digital Farm is quite simple. By introducing simple sensors – the kind now commonly found in fitbits and self-watering plant pots– to regular farming tools, smallholders farmers can access real-time, accurate data. As well as directly enabling them to use data to respond to numerous challenges Digital Farm will empower these farmers to claim ownership over their own information.
With an initial grant from Nominet Trust, Digital Farm has been working with Nairobi based Intellisoft Plus out in the field to test prototypes, speak with farmers and devise solutions together. We pride ourselves on being farmer-led, not tech-led, meaning we are not seeking the newest or most innovative tech. Instead, we are working directly with farmers to identify their greatest challenges and develop and deliver solutions that they can work with.
By running numerous user-centred workshops and brainstorming sessions with farmers, it has become apparent that IOT is indeed a great opportunity to connect farmers to the data generated on their farms. Kits investigating soil moisture and rainfall data should help smallholders improve water management in the face of climate threats, and support them to diversify their farms. This in turn enables them to build their productivity leading to improved livelihoods for them and their communities.
There are plenty of tools out there already (Pycno, Sensoterra etc.) that achieve great results. These tools are well made, effective and have already demonstrated their usefulness in the market. However, many of these existing tools focus on commercial farmers with much more of a familiarity with using, and access to technology. They are also often priced at a point too high for small-scale farmers with a household income of ~$5 per day. Therefore, in order to ensure that these tools are truly accessible to smallholder farmers Digital Farm has, just like with WeFarm, set itself the challenge of addressing the problem of making the ‘internet of things’ accessible to farmers without access to the internet, limited technological capability and only a feature phone to rely on. This remains a design challenge for Digital Farm, but with our network of dedicated promoter farmers and youth agents we have made great strides in the initial stages of exploration.
Climate Ventures 2.0 – Philadelphia
After applying online, Digital Farm was selected as a “top idea” of a challenge run by OpenIdeo, in partnership with Good Company Ventures (GCV). This challenge sought out “new technologies to make agriculture and water systems more resilient in the face of climate threats” and offered Digital Farm the opportunity to attend a 12-week accelerator program in with GCV in Philadelphia.
Housed at the trendy and vibrant Benjamin’s Desk co-working space, just around the corner from Independence Hall where the US constitution was signed, two Producers Direct team members have alternatively travelled to Philadelphia throughout June and July. Joining 9 other companies, they have been attending a programme set to help Digital Farm refine its idea, improve on its business model and further explore the design of the project.
It has certainly does this. The program has helped forced Digital Farm to think outside the NGO box and to explore it as a business idea with the potential to impact millions of smallholder farmers across the world. During weekly peer review sessions the team have been given the opportunity to put ideas to the test and engage in debate with people working on similar ideas. This has provided receive a lot of useful feedback, challenged assumptions and helped Digital Farm frame itself within the wider eco-system of products and services available.
The course has effectively provided Digital Farm with a crash course on how to take a great idea into a winning business. Being the only NGO within the cohort of companies, it is fair to say Producers Direct occasionally stands out like a sore thumb. However, this has also meant the team have been able to hone their thinking and identify strengths, weaknesses and areas that needed further work in a space where innovation and technology is driving things forward rapidly. This has led to the realisation that, while the technology that Digital Farm is putting forward is not as advanced as some, our network of over 280,000 smallholder farmers and our farmer-led model is a huge selling point and demonstrates not only the ability to ensure uptake of the tools but also a route to scale.
As the programme comes to an end, the team can reflect on what has been learnt and how this thinking can be taken to inform the next steps for Digital Farm. It is clear that in a space crowded with highly talented technology entrepreneurs, Digital Farm’s unique farmer-led approach and strong existing network will be key to its development. By creating ways in which complex tools and technology can be accessed by smallholder farmers and remaining true to its farmer-led approach, Digital Farm will be able to empower smallholders to own and use data from their farms and build their livelihoods.
Digital Farm looks forward to more extensive piloting of the tools over the next few months – assessing ways to feed information back to farmers and ensure they are able to make valuable informed decisions.
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