Technology Tips: From food to wealth: growing grassroots hope

While we all occasionally need a lawyer, a doctor or a plumber, you can be sure that 3 times each day you will need the services of a farmer.  I would like to share with you a snippet of how digital technology is helping to tackle the thoroughly intractable global problems of poverty and food scarcity by working with the bastions of local food production: smallholder farmers.  

Being a farmer is never easy.  It requires amazing resilience and versatility to survive.  Smallholder farmers in developing countries have some unique twists to this challenge including wide-spread illiteracy and typically incredibly low yields.  The combination of expensive fertiliser and pesticide treatments, falling yields and rising debt make for an uncomfortable squeeze.  Worse, many are finding that their soil is becoming depleted, producing poorer yields and becoming increasingly susceptible to weather variations.  With little to eat and less to sell, hope is a rare experience.

Lifeworks Global is a Sussex-based non-profit that works with smallholder farmers to meet these challenges through education.  They have developed a range of effective and easy to learn sustainable agricultural technologies in partnership with research centres and FIBL, a fountain of organic farming knowledge.  And this is where it gets interesting… these techniques use free, easily available materials and are backed by numerous trials that reliably demonstrate significant improvements in yield and farmers’ incomes.

Clementine is a poor Rwandan farmer.  Her previous maize crop were small, strangely mis-shapen kernels.  Pointing to her field, “This is what my family have to live on for three months”.  It was not a sight for hungry eyes.  A few months after adopting Lifeworks techniques, her new crop is fine, large kernels without any of the cost of artificial treatments and she has plenty of food to sell.

Have you ever learnt something one day only to struggle to recall it the next?  It is the same with these techniques.  Asking farmers to learn new composting techniques, and handle the various calculations and timings required is a challenge.  While it has worked well enough in the past, to put real power into farmers’ hands you need a little digital technology to do all this automatically: Farm Genie.

Lifeworks designed Farm Genie software to give farmers the best advice right where it is needed.  Armed with details of farmers’ soil type, acreage and crop, Genie produces a calendar of advice to support the farmer in their own language or by images: what to do, when to do it and what to look out for.  Genie works with all sizes of project from villages through to massive communes to gather the data needed by agronomists so they can offer the best advice to farmers at the right time.

Is this transformative technology?  In the words of the head of sustainable development at a leading global charity, “I have been looking for this for such a long time”.  In this time of rampant Covid challenges, this technology really is transformative.  Many farmers in the developing world are cut off from supplies of fertiliser.  Lifeworks’ technology gives them the training to make their own sustainable future, better equipped for the many challenges to come.

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by Roger Lyon