By BITANGE NDEMO : DAILY NATION- 18/6/2018.
In my speech last month to some 500 farmers attending a conference at the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO), I decided to literally apply Pearl Zhu’s proposition that “we are moving slowly into an era where Big Data is the starting point, not the end”. Zhu is the author of the Digital Master book series. Although not all the farmers had sufficient knowledge of big data, it worked beyond my expectation.
How many tons of potato do you harvest per acre? I started with this question. Murmurs followed as many started to ask their neighbours if they had any clue. In the end, it was the large-scale farmers from Trans Nzoia who raised their arms and said that they harvest between 20 and 25 tons per acre. Small-scale farmers, largely from Molo and Nyandarua, kept working their numbers. With the help of other participants they arrived at between seven and 12 tons per acre.
“Great,” I said. “What does it cost to produce potatoes from one acre?” I posed.
Again, murmurs, and great effort to get the answers. Hmmm, fertilizer Sh90,000, seed Sh3,000, land preparation, weeding and other chemicals Sh10,000. Their final estimate per acre, including transportation and other incidentals, came to Sh160,000. How about the market price? They were quick. The average sales price is about Sh2,000 per 90kg bag. Therefore, for a farmer to break even, he or she must produce at least 80 bags of 90kg.
The farmers producing less than seven tons an acre make losses and have no knowledge of the damage they are causing to their financial status. After these back-and-forth math calculations, one elderly woman said in frustration, “Basically, we are not making any money!” Her statement underlies the fact this bad situation can be worse if the market is saturated as it always happens.
“Yes,” I responded. “But I’m not done yet. Israel produces between 40 and 45 tons per acre, and the question that I want you to ask yourselves is: What is it that they are doing to produce that much from one acre that we are not doing?”
But I quickly told them that they needed not respond. I told them that Israel has moved on to precision farming. By this I mean they are using technology to feed their crops with what it will take to make the plants more productive. I added that plants, just like human beings, require optimal nutrients in order to maximally benefit farmers from one acre of land.
By using drones, they know virtually what every plant requires to provide optimal outcomes. Sensors tell the farmers in Israel anything from moisture levels to soil alkalinity and other necessary information, then they inform them exactly what is needed to provide a balanced diet of nutrients for optimal output.
DESPERATE RANDOM GUESSWORK
In contrast, our farming is largely desperate random guesswork that is far removed from the policy needs of food for all. The production systems are never geared towards a collective purpose but mostly towards individual consumption that undermines the overall goal of food security.
A 2005 seminal paper, “Future Directions of Precision Agriculture”, by McBratney, Whelan, and Ancev describes precision farming as: a farming management concept based on observing, measuring and responding to inter and intra-field variability in crops. The goal of precision agriculture research is to define a decision support system for whole farm management with the goal of optimizing returns on inputs while preserving resources …. In simpler terms, it means application of precise and correct amount of inputs like water, fertilizer, pesticides etc. at the correct time to the crop for increasing its productivity and maximizing its yields. Precision agriculture management practices can significantly reduce the amount of nutrient and other crop inputs used while boosting yields. Farmers thus obtain a return on their investment by saving on water, pesticide, and fertilizer costs.
The absence of measurement in our farming cultural practices makes it expensive and unproductive to the farmers. This indeed explains the source of poverty that persistently undermines progress in emerging economies.
To change these attitudes, we must develop demonstration centers (similar to incubation facilities) where farmers come and learn the emerging farming techniques. The budget that was read last week shows provisions of Sh20.25 billion to enhance food and nutrition security. Although lacking details, it is imperative that some of the provision goes into extension services and more specifically development of agricultural incubation facilities at least in every county.
The many universities that dot the country should be made to create support systems for farmers by sharing their research findings with them in their locality. Many of the farmers are indeed great in replication solutions that work. The VAT exemptions on equipment used in grain storage facilities should be extended to include sensors and small drones that can help farmers monitor their farms with precision.
Our priority, especially with sustainable development goals, is to eradicate poverty and, as I have shown in my introductory paragraphs, our farmers are poor because they have no decision support systems. As such, the exemption will only benefit rich farmers with sufficient grain to warrant some storage facilities and those that have overcome production deficiencies that the more than 80 per cent peasant farmers are grappling with.
BUDGET FOR RICH FARMERS
The role of the annual budget proposals is to remove from those who have and spread to those who do not have. With respect to farmers, this year’s budget was largely for the rich. This is why I argue that we need to embrace data in order to deal with priorities more effectively. Let me demonstrate with the numbers here. The VAT exemption on animal feed raw materials will benefit less than five per cent of the population, mostly rich dairy farmers, as most poor graze their animals.
It would have made sense if we built incubation centers to educate the poor on modern animal husbandry (day-to-day care, selective breeding and the raising of livestock) to make them more productive and useful to economic development. The use of big data in decision support is of great importance. People, especially those living in developing economies, need to develop a culture of using this emerging tool for decision-making.
Policymakers too need to focus their priorities on the more pressing problems like poverty to avoid giving incentives to those who have at the expense of those who don’t. With big data, we are beginning to understand the causes of poverty. We have the obligation to find the appropriate solutions. Let us make data the starting point in dealing with many of the problems facing us today.
The writer is an associate professor at the University of Nairobi’s School of Business. Twitter: @bantigito