It has long been known that mobile phones can transform lives in the developing world. But as a surge in demand for food in emerging economies puts intense pressure on vulnerable smallholder farmers, it’s clear that wireless communications must be used more effectively to tackle a potential crisis of productivity and sustainability in remote rural regions. The question is why such a ubiquitous and simple tool has not been applied more creatively already.
One third of humanity is fed through an estimated 500m smallholder farms and, in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, 80% of food consumption depends on these crucial producers. With demand for food expected to grow by 70% by 2050, this fragile dependence is under extreme pressure. Water shortages, severe weather events, rising input costs and the impact of non-food crops, such as biofuels, now threaten the ability of these communities to produce the food the world needs.
The challenge of agricultural productivity is not just one of feeding hungry mouths. It is also one of safeguarding the environment. Agriculture is currently responsible for 30% of the world’s carbon emissions and approximately one-third of all global food production is lost or wasted. As land becomes scarce, intensive farming practices need to be combined with approaches that protect natural resources from unsustainable exploitation.
In many emerging countries, well over half of people have mobile phone access and many already benefit from wireless money transfer and other services. But as the world calls on smallholder farmers to improve the efficiency of food production while safeguarding the environment, it is now time to exploit this affordable and easily deployed technology to its full potential.
When speaking to 766 CEOs as part of our global survey on sustainability with the United Nations Global Compact, 91% told us that they were planning to deploy new technologies to tackle sustainability and create new markets in their companies in the next five years. And in a new analysis conducted by Accenture for Vodafone, we have calculated that the use of mobile phones could increase the incomes of smallholder farmers by $138bn by 2020, an uplift of 11%, and reduce carbon emissions by five megatonnes. These figures relate to those markets in Vodafone’s global footprint alone. For instance, in India we think mobile applications could boost incomes by $64bn. The global benefits would be even more impressive than those we have calculated.
The greatest potential for improving farmers’ livelihoods comes from access to financial payments and agricultural information via mobiles. Mobile financial services could lift incomes by $50bn by enabling farmers to borrow and financial providers to lend. Insuring against animal diseases or crop failure would increase farmers’ ability to invest in the higher quality seeds and tools they need to generate higher revenue.
Mobile information services could generate a similar level of extra income, thanks to access to specialised local helplines to improve farming best practice. And we estimate that weather forecast services could save 6% of freshwater withdrawals from agricultural land by 2020.
A crucial area for development is the creation or enhancement of markets. The use of mobile trading platforms can give farmers direct access to the best prices or the most lucrative export buyers. Meanwhile, wireless data technology can help to save carbon emissions and reduce food waste by enabling smart logistics, tracking of produce and the monitoring of food quality.
The technologies in question are already tried and tested. They are not complicated. So what’s holding back their use in rural farming communities? Above all, the case for capital investment in networks can be hard to make against an uncertain financial return. More needs to be done to create the critical mass of supply and demand for local services.
While mobile operators recognise that it is in their own interests to stimulate the market, they will need support from other stakeholders. Government intervention, for instance, will be required to underpin the integrity of service providers’ content and boost user confidence. Governments should work with banks and commodity exchanges to ensure transparent trading and well-regulated financial services. NGOs can play a crucial role, exploiting their local knowledge to direct mobile-based services to those who need them most, for example women farmers, who are often excluded from financial transactions today. And private companies can increase their dependence on smallholders in their supply chain.
All these players have something to gain from their contribution. Governments can use mobile networks to improve agriculture data collection or to reduce the cost of distributing subsidies and services. NGOs can improve their visibility and effectiveness in the field. And the private sector can benefit from improved logistics and higher food quality.
Mobile network operators should also think creatively to drive demand for services. For instance, they could use their existing network of retail outlets to train end-users and educate farmers. Or exploit their presence to distribute hardware associated with mobile agricultural services, such as water meters or humidity sensors.
This, then, is not a question of aid or of one way funding to help an important but vulnerable community. It is an example of the “convergence economy” in action, the coming together of many sectors to create markets and generate commercial returns for investors and smallholder farmers alike. And the alignment of market forces with government and NGO initiatives helps to scale at speed the transformation of areas like agriculture.
It represents just the beginning of what will soon be a significant wave of growth and innovation pursued by global companies in emerging markets as they embrace social and environmental challenges as part of their drive for fresh commercial and sustainable outcomes. The mobile technology that could make such a difference is close at hand. It simply requires collaboration and creativity to exploit its full potential.